07.05.2021

How OKRs Guided Syracuse's Emergency Response Plan

City Planning Post-pandemic

COVID-19 testing, Photo by Jakayla Toney

This piece is part of a two-part series featuring the City of Syracuse. To read part one, click here.

City of Syracuse officials first started having weekly meetings in February of 2020 to monitor the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. As the outbreak spread and grew, more officials from the city-government joined to help coordinate the city’s emergency response plan. At the height of the outbreak they would meet 7 days a week.

As the city’s chief innovation officer, Adria Finch’s job had always been to find new ways to solve government problems to meet the needs of Syracuse residents. She had helped the City of Syracuse use OKRs to break departmental silos, but now the city faced an emergency, and with it, the same struggles as many other municipal governments. A state-mandated stay-at-home order had weakened the economy and revenue was expected to drop—with an expected budget shortfall of $22 million. Concerns were rising that potential budget cuts might create lasting and irreparable harm to infrastructure, education and other priorities.

The challenges deepened as coordination between local, state and federal authorities each had limited control over the response; the state had authority over reopening decisions while the county was in charge of the emergency response plan and the municipal budget. At times, local government was caught between the two as state and federal officials argued publicly about how to fund municipalities. One thing was clear: if local policy makers were going to build a bridge to a post-pandemic Syracuse, then they would have to ‘punch above their weight’ to reopen safely and quickly.

Implementing the Emergency Response Plan

The city’s fire chief Timothy Gleeson, who also worked with FEMA, suggested the city follow a FEMA-like framework for emergency response that consists of 8 teams. Finch was assigned to co-lead the planning team.

“It was kind of interesting just trying to figure out where we fit in this puzzle,” Finch said, noting that at first it wasn’t even clear what they were responsible for, “There was also an operations group and a logistics group. How is planning different from that?” she wondered.

Over time, she learned that the planning team’s primary role was managing data to help the other teams make decisions to aid the local government reopening plan. The governor had set the metrics any region in the state had to meet to advance into different phases of reopening. If Syracuse wanted to open earlier or later than other counties, Finch would need to collect city-specific data to be able to make the best, evidenced-based decisions for Syracuse.

To determine next steps Finch used OKRs as a guide to set important metrics, such as how much PPE the city had or needed to source based on real-time case counts.

Downtown Syracuse New York with view of historic buildings and fountain at Clinton Square

Returning to OKRs after an emergency

By summer, the city had settled into a new normal. Daily COVID-19 meetings gradually became weekly. As the sense of emergency subsided, Finch noticed that the “old” weekly meetings with the department heads had suffered a setback: a loss of focus and direction—and their OKRs.

Although the city had previously adopted OKRs in 2018, the mayor had paused them in 2020 to focus efforts on the pandemic. Now there was a lot of talk about losing money, but much less about how to move forward. The team knew they had to decrease spending, but the discussion was very general. There were no specific targets to work toward.

Finch thought returning to OKRs could guide the city’s officials with the new challenge of staying financially afloat during the pandemic-induced economic downturn. The mayor liked the idea. So Finch drafted some OKRs. Using financial stability as their North Star objective, Finch worked with the city’s commissioner of finance and other leaders to determine how much could be realistically cut from their spending. The resulting KR was a shared commitment across leadership to spend 10 percent less than the year before.

“It’s kind of powerful for people to actually see that we are supposed to hit $14 million and right now we’re at $11 million. We’re doing good, we’re doing our part, rather than just saying spend less,” said Finch.

Other objectives were revived from before the pandemic, with the KRs adjusted to meet present realities. For example, the financial stability objective changed from reducing budget variance to accelerating spending cuts and increasing revenue with consideration for how the pandemic had affected each area.

“We spend a lot of time talking about the financial impact of COVID, so let’s have some key results related to that,” says Finch recalling examples from the discussions. “We’re spending a long time talking about neighborhood conditions and business conditions. Let’s have some key results related to those.”

Discussions like these helped the team move from budget targets to specific actions, even re-evaluating ideas that had been stuck in deliberations for a long time. For example, to meet the OKR to increase revenue the city council finally resolved to sell city-owned property. By tying the city-property sale project to OKRs, the team was finally able to identify all the “dominoes’’ that needed to fall to make the plan a reality. They laid out each critical step that needed to be done and attached due dates.

“I’m really happy that this is a key result because I think it increases accountability,” said Finch.

A climb out of a $22 million dollar budget deficit is daunting for any small city. During a time of uncertainty, using OKRs offered structure and guidance to navigate through layers of bureaucracy. By staying productive and focused, the city’s long-term bond rating remained the same. Moody’s Investors Services and S&P Global Ratings, the world’s top credit ratings agencies, credited the City’s “proactive” and “fast” budget adjustments. And on May 7 City Hall opened to the public, with some improvements, after being closed for over a year.

Finch, who left her post with the city last year, put Syracuse on the path of reaching audacious goals by breaking them down into reachable milestones. Seeing the difference in the city’s game plan with and without OKRs has led Finch into new territory. Through her new startup, Change Mechanics, she plans to help other city governments hone in on what’s really important and what does not matter.

“Changing local government is hard,” Finch wrote. “Sometimes when things are challenging it helps to break things down and just focus on the next step in front of you. Simply do the next right thing.”

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