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A new executive arrived in my town a few years ago. He came from the private sector to take the reins of a public institution. With experience in getting results, he said the best way forward was to identify priorities and then establish goals with timelines. And he did just that. A game plan was set. Plans were implemented. Outcomes were monitored. Adjustments were made along the way. Goals were met. New goals were established.

Shared Social Goals

Want Social Progress? Then Set Shared Social Goals—Frank Fear

There’s nothing unusual about this story. It happens all the time. Organizations—private, public, and nonprofit—routinely set goals, organize for action, and monitor progress. Success is calibrated accordingly. Deliberate, systematic, and plan-ful efforts are coins of the realm. “Stuff happens,” of course, but that’s an extraneous—not a primary—storyline.

But let’s face it: what happens so routinely in the organizational sphere doesn’t happen very often in the public sphere—in a community, region, state, country, and beyond. We don’t often do it, even when stakes are high, when issues are imposing, critical, and chronic, such as income inequality.

And there are good reasons why not. For one thing, the public sphere isn’t a singular enterprise, like the setting in my opening story. An array of institutions and organizations operate in the public sphere—public, private, and nonprofit entitles—all doing important work. But they mostly focus on their own mission, programs, and needs; and they don’t always work together on a common cause, especially in coordinated fashion, even when they could and, probably, should.

Political realities make the situation even more challenging. Leaders and citizens, alike, have diverse philosophies and preferences. It’s difficult—seemingly impossible at times—to agree on a common platform, including the goals that should be pursued and what means are best for achieving those goals. Besides, it almost always takes time to achieve success, and there’s always the matter of who gets credit. That’s too long to wait and too difficult to grasp in the typical political half-life.

Impressive outcomes can result when public sights are set collectively. It happens when we organize, coordinate, and focus on making social progress, together.

But here’s the thing: impressive outcomes can result when public sights are set collectively. It happens when we organize, coordinate, and focus on making social progress, together. Consider these examples.

Fifteen years ago The United Nations established a set of international social and economic targets called “The Millennium Development Goals.” Countries and other supporting entities agreed to do their part. What were the results? Data show that a primary goal—cutting extreme poverty worldwide by 50%—was met … 5 years ahead of schedule. Now the U.N. has established a new set of goals called “The Sustainable Development Goals.” Nearly twenty targets were set in domains such as public health, education, and the environment.

In 1970 the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Air Act, which was designed to improve air conditions in cities across the country. What were the results? Data show that life expectancies increased significantly in cities with previously “dirty air.” The life-gain is estimated at 5.2 years in Weirton, WV, for example, an industrial city that once had particulate concentrations similar to those being experienced today in air-foul Beijing, China.

What can happen when we don’t set and work toward shared social goals? Here’s an example. The National Academies of Science reported recently on life expectancies of the richest and poorest men in the U.S.—specifically with respect to men born in 1960 as compared to those born in 1930. What were the results? Life expectancy for the richest men born in 1960 increased by 7+ years over the richest men born in 1930—to 88.8 years. But life expectancy declined over 30 years—by about .5 year—for the poorest men, to 76.1 years. That’s a startling life gap of 12+ years.

These vignettes suggest that social progress can be made when we undertake collective, shared efforts.

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So what would that take to work that way? We’d need to work across boundaries. Government officials, the business community, foundations, public entities, nonprofit agencies and organizations, and citizens would work together.

But let’s face it: we prefer working in other ways. We experiment with models that fit the fancy of a few, but don’t serve the needs of the many (e.g., charter schools). We push change through, often with such fierce opposition that efforts are person-identified (e.g., “Obamacare”). And there’s always the historic default option: throw money at the problem hoping that capital infusion will yield results.

Imperfect as they are, at least those options are about doing something. But more and more these days the reality is inaction. We can’t agree on what to do, but we also need to avoid taking blame for nothingness. So we posture and engage in “calling out” behavior. It’s always others’ fault: they either aren’t doing something they should or they are doing something they shouldn’t. That’s an easy game to play, self-serving at its core, played typically under the wraps of “Liberal” and “Conservative”—as if either label offered kryptonite protection from failed leadership.

But failed leadership it is—and with harsh outcomes, too. Often the least among us suffers at the hands of neglect.

And the truly sad thing is this: coordinating actions for the public good may not always require the kind of hard-wired coordination we assume is necessary. William Gladwell discovered that outcome a few years ago while researching the crime rate drop in New York City. He assumed, as many of us would, that the drop resulted from formal, deliberate, and orchestrated efforts from the police and other related sources. What he found, instead, was that a number of leaders and entities tired of the high crime rate and, in response, decided to do something—each in their own way and form—to address it. It wasn’t coordinated action, but it was action. (Note: Gladwell’s findings are disputed by some sources.)

Whether Gladwell was right or not, the fact remains that it’s helpful to have social goals—to establish targets for social progress. It’s about making good things happen when a critical mass of people and institutions say: “For the public’s good, let’s achieve X and achieve it by Y date.”

Every public sphere I know—every village, town or city, region, state, and country—could benefit from taking that approach. The fact that it doesn’t happen—as often as it might and as comprehensively as it should–is the biggest disappointment of my lifetime. That’s because the cost is measured in lives.

Saving lives is why Houston mayor, Annise Parker, has been spearheading a metro-wide initiative called “Go Healthy, Houston!” Why? It’s the numbers. Over 60% of Houston’s residents are either overweight or obese; about a quarter of the population lives in poverty; and fewer than 20% of Houstonians eat the recommended balance of fruits and vegetables or exercise regularly. Results? Houston is no longer measured—as it once was—as “The Fattest City in the U.S.”

Want social progress? Then set shared goals.

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Sound Pollyannish? Not really. It’s called “Leadership for the Public Good.”

Frank Fear