GOAL SETTING: A process to determine where you want to go
(from Maine Townsman, November 1998)
By Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat
"I don’t much care where – said Alice.
"Then it doesn’t matter which way you go," said the Cat.
" – so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.
From "Alice In Wonderland"

Talk goal setting with town managers around the state and you inevitably hear them paraphrasing Alice’s conversation with the Cheshire Cat.

"If you don’t know where you want to go, how will you know when you get there?"

Or, "When you don’t know where you want to go, then anywhere you are is okay."

Or, as one former military man turned town manager paraphrased it: "If you don’t know where your target is, you can’t hit it."

Or, in the lingo of stakeholders, "If everybody knows where we are going, it implies a buy-in to where we are going."

Ten years ago talk of goal setting, while common in the private sector, was fairly uncommon in the public sector. With its traditional focus on care-taking and stewardship and getting by with as little as possible, goal setting was not seen as a critical tool for getting the work done.

But no more. Faced with more on their plates than they can handle, divisiveness on councils and boards, angry and apathetic citizens, increasing budgets and declining tax bases, more and more boards of selectmen, councils and their managers are taking time out to set some goals, so that they, unlike Alice, will know where they are going and if and when they have gotten there.

If you doubt it, you haven’t, like the TOWNSMAN has, recently talked to the managers in towns large and small around the state. Not only did the TOWNSMAN learn that towns of varying size and form of government were indeed doing serious goal setting, equally as important, it learned there was no one cookie cutter approach to it. Which is to say, the personal styles of both the managers and their council or board of selectmen prevailed. Some spelled out their goals in detail on spreadsheets; others took a broad brush, single page approach; while others kept track of them on pencil-pepperd pages in "management system" note books.

This article looks briefly at the state of goal setting in three municipalities: Bowdoinham (pop. 2,275), Brunswick (pop. 20,379) and Houlton (pop. 6,643). It focuses on the primary uses of the tool and the various approachs to goal setting, provides examples of goals set, and offers some practical in-the-trenches advice from those interviewed. It begins first with the advice.

Some Advice from the Veterans

The following comments were assimilated from TOWNSMAN interviews with a handful of managers and former managers. Those interviewed include: Earla Haggerty, town manager of Bowdoinham; John Bubier, city manager of Bath; Allan Bean, town manager of Houlton; Bob Simpson, town manager of Dexter; Jim Bennett, administrative assistant to the mayor in Westbrook; Don Gerrish, town manager of Brunswick; and Larry Cilley, former manager in Topsham and Bath.

• Before you establish your goals, decide what your problems are. Earla Haggerty.

• When setting your goals, find out what the people doing the job think. Ask them what they need you to do to help them do their job.Then really listen. It’s not just a top-down approach. John Bubier and Allan Bean.

• If your goals are too abstract or theoretical it will be hard to get your arms around them. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start with a few fuzzy goals that you can get consensus on. Larry Cilley.

• Make your goals doable. If they aren’t, you are setting yourself up for failure. If they are too ambitious, if they are unattainable, they reflect poorly on the manager and the council. There has to be a reality check. But that doesn’t mean you should not be aggressive in setting your goals. Force yourself to stretch. Don Gerrish and Bob Simpson.

• Make your goals measurable. That which gets measured gets done. People measure you against expectations you have set. However, it is unlikely that all you set forth will be attained. Eighty to eighty-five percent is a good score. Whatever your score, you will have accomplished more than if you had not put yourself at risk. Jim Bennett.

• Don’t make your list too big to do, track, and measure. Be realistic about what you can implement given your town’s fiscal and human resources. Don’t be in a hurry to get things done. Be impatiently patient. Target only the most important. And don’t be surprised if you carry items over from year to year. Allan Bean.

• The goal should be no longer than one sentence and must contain a verb. Larry Cilley.

• You can’t do any thing serious with goals unless you have a battle plan. There must be a deadline attached to each goal; there must also be a funding source; and the person/department responsible for implementing the goal must be identified and held accountable. John Bubier and Larry Cilley.

• Be flexible. Your list of goals should be viewed as a living, dynamic document. Don’t be afraid to revisit it throughout the year, adding and dropping goals. If it didn’t get done, it’s probably because there was either not enough money, not enough public participation , or it just wasn’t an issue to begin with. Earla Haggerty and John Bubier.

Bowdoinham: Goals to Get the House in Order

Some managers, when newly hired by a town council or board, set about assessing the state of the town and coming up with findings of fact that they propose to address. In the course of doing so they set goals that not only address the issues but serve as their personal work plan.

Such has been the nature of goal setting in Bowdoinham where two years ago the newly hired manager Earla Haggerty set out – for want of a better phrase – "to put Bowdoinham’s house in order". For Haggerty, putting the house in order meant she would have to first focus on addressing concerns raised by the town’s auditor. She began by targeting the town’s fiscal management. In 1996, her first year on the job, drawing from the auditor’s report, she stated the problem the town had with its fiscal management and set forth two goals and six actions. In 1997, she added two more goals and eight additional actions; in 1998 she added one more goal and five more actions.


Problem Statement: Past administration of corporate finances and budgeting philosophies have not kept pace with current professional standards which has resulted in a material weakness in the corporate structure. The selectmen propose the following goals for remedy:

Goal: To broaden the tax base (1998)


• Develop regional presence for Bowdoinham

• Research economic development opportunities around Bowdoinham’s unique assets

• Develop commercial space – office building

Goal: To stabilize the mill rate (1996)


• Practice balanced budget philosophy.

• Manage revenue budget with cash receipts system.

• Manage surplus.

• Develop a 5-year capital improvement plan (1997).

• Get involved with county & educational budget process (1997).

Goal: To identify and cure recurring reportable conditions and material weaknesses of the corporation (1996)


• Install computerized double entry accounting system.

• Develop cash management program.

• Develop general fixed assets and inventory system.

• Develop investment policy (1997).

• Policy/procedure municipal accounting (1997).

Goal: Develop a plan to make annual budget review effective (1997)


• Create finance committee (1997).

• Establish quarterly schedule for budget review (1998).

Goal: Develop a plan for a more efficient use of money (1997)


• Trust fund research and restoration (1997).

• Develop grant program (1997).

• Develop purchasing policy (1997).

• Develop trust fund use policy (1998).

During the past two years, Haggerty and the board of selectmen have crafted problem statements not only in fiscal management but also in the following areas: departmental organization, ordinances and policies, public property, personnel, community relations, and internal control systems. As Haggerty describes it, the document is a "living one". Each year, a few actions are accomplished and a few more goals and or actions are added. While the document has grown to seven pages and currently includes 17 goals, Haggerty expects that once Bowdoinham’s house has been set in order, the document will shrink to a single page and include longer-range goals.

Haggerty sees the list of goals she develops with her board of selectmen at the beginning of the fiscal year during the course of an evening workshop, as her "to do list" of goals. "This is what I am doing for you; it’s a time frame; it’s a record of what the administrator has accomplished; it’s an accountability of my time. I don’t operate outside this list," says Haggerty.

Brunswick: Goals to Give Direction to the Manager and Staff.

With 10 years of goal setting under its belt, Brunswick’s current goal setting process, unlike Bowdoinham’s, is not directed on setting its house in order; it’s about moving forward. And, it’s not necessarily meant to serve as the manager’s work plan, but rather what the council wants to accomplish above and beyond its basic work with the budget and union contracts. As such, the goals are not real specific, says Brunswick Town Manager Don Gerrish; they are merely directions for staff to follow, stated in terms of goals and objectives. While many are carried over from year to year, they change their place on the prioritized list.

1998 Town Council

Goals & Objectives

1. Adopt a Capital Improvement Program.

The program will review and address space and equipment needs for all municipal entities. Specific areas to be reviewed include roads, sidewalks, recreation areas, building needs, the old high school and equipment needs. (This was also a goal in 1997).

2. Conclude Revisions to the Zoning Ordinance.

The Zoning Task Force appointed by the Council should complete its review of the environmental issues of our zoning ordinance and make recommendations to the Council. (This was also a goal in 1997).

3. Pedestrian Safety.

The Council will continue to pursue avenues that are cost effective and reasonable to improve pedestrian safety in Brunswick. (This was also a goal in 1997).

4. Regionalism.

The Council will continue to explore ways of pursuing a strategy to address local needs of communities of Brunswick, Topsham, and Bath. This goal will be accomplished through work with elected officials from the three communities, including continued work with the Merrymeeting Council of Governments (This is a portion of a larger goal set in 1997 regarding economic development).

5. Recycling.

The Council with assistance of the Solid Waste Advisory Committee will pursue increasing and improving Brunswick’s Recycling Program. (This is the first time this area has appeared on the list).

According to Gerrish, the list is created right after the new town council is seated in January or February. The goal setting process is a straightforward one. Last year’s goals and objectives are mailed to the nine-member council in January requesting the members to indicate issues they wish to consider for the coming year. The manager consolidates everyone’s list into one; a meeting is held where consensus is reached and the previous year’s list is updated.

Houlton: Goals to Build a Team and a Budget

When Allan Bean became Houlton’s town manager in 1994, he did what he normally did in his former career as an officer in the U.S. Air Force: he met with his department heads and asked them what they thought needed to be done. Using Nominal Group Technique (NGT), which he describes as a "quietly controlled brain storming session", the group came up with 10 things that the author of this article has condensed to the following three:

• The need for the council to have an overarching vision, mission statement and a set of goals and objectives for the town.

• A better budgeting process that does away with the "we (council) vs. they (department heads)" attitude that traditionally has permeated the budget process. A budget process that does not depend on surplus, that funds reserve accounts, and that indicates to department heads what level of service the town wishes to provide.

• A council that focuses on setting policy and empowering department heads to implement that policy.

Bean has been meeting with his department heads ever since, listening to what they need to do their jobs better and then translating what they say into action, which he tracks with a Geodex Management System (a special three-ring binder management notebook).

But Bean’s approach to the budget process isn’t only bottoms up; it is also top down, in the sense that he asks town councilors once a year before the budget process begins at a budget guidance workshop what level of service they wish the staff to provide its residents. This year for example, among other things, the council recommended that for FY 99 the department heads:

• Hold the budget level.

• Keep the level of services the same.

• Keep the mill rate the same.

• Be realistic.

• Pursue economic development.

"After all," Bean says, " it’s not what you say that counts, it’s what you do and so how you decide to spend money is how you set policy and goals."

In addition to this budget process, there is a second form of goal setting in Houlton, similar to Bowdoinham. This one involves Bean and the town council and is part of his evaluation process.

During his annual review with the town council, Bean proposes short-range goals he believes the town should pursue for the year. A look at boldly-written abbreviated notes in Bean’s notebook indicates that in 1996, his goals were to focus on the following items and issues:

• Mission statements, goals, objectives, processes (mission statement done)

• Management Information system (done)

• E-911 (in progress)

• Cemetery Trust Fund (done)

• Community Development Block Grant for the downtown retail section (not accepted)

• MDOT Construction funding (done)

• Pursue economic growth (continuous process)

The mission statement, adopted by Houlton officials, is: "Dedicated home-town professionals economically striving to meet the expectations of residents, businesses, and guest alike for services from a first line of government that is second to none."

SIDEBAR: Uses of Goal Setting

According to the International City Management Association’s Fourth Edition (1994) of the "Elected Officials Handbook: Setting Goals for Action", goal setting is an indispensable tool as it:

• Gets everyone pulling together. Provides a list of goals that everyone can understand and commit to.

• Helps you spend your time more effectively. When you are clear about your priorities, you consciously choose to spend more time on the important issues.

• Establishes clear guidelines for administrators. Without clearly defined goals, the administrator may get conflicting signals from different members of the council and could end up using resources in a way that doesn’t effectively meet anyone’s primary goals.

• Gives you some useful budget guidelines. If you are clear in stating which programs and issues are your highest priorities, then the staff will have a better idea of how to allocate funds when preparing the budget.

• Helps you communicate with constituents and build support for programs and policies. It gives you a way of involving a wide range of citizens in evaluating the mission of the community.

• Gives you an evaluation tool. When you have set goals and agreed upon priorities, you have a benchmark against which you can measure how well you and the administrator are doing.