Skip to main content
Civil Service

Top tips on setting objectives that are right for you

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Civil Service Learning
Dr Janet Barker
Dr Janet Barker

Spring is finally here, and I couldn’t be more glad to forget about the winter months and look ahead to warmer weather and fresh possibilities. With performance appraisals done, it’s time for us all to focus on the year ahead, and what we hope to achieve.

Setting objectives can sometimes feel rather daunting. We’re all used to hearing about the ‘SMART’ objective – one that’s specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. It’s a useful acronym to set us on the right track, but hearing those words without any context can make the task seem harder. So, here are my tips for getting your objectives right – for you.

  1. Think about your contributions to wider goals...

Whatever job you do, you’ll be contributing to the goals of your team and your wider organisation. It can be easy to lose sight of this when you’re buried in the day job, but objective-setting time is a good opportunity to remember how you’re making a difference. Centring your objectives on the contributions you make will help you to stay focused and motivated.

  1. ...And how you measure them

It’s worth spending some time thinking about what ‘good’ looks like – and discussing it with your line manager, too – before you start writing your objectives. We’ve all been in situations where it’s apparent there are varying perceptions of what we’re trying to achieve! So, some things to consider are: What are the core priorities of the work you’re doing? What is essential, and what would be nice to have? What do you feel is most important about the work you do?

  1. Get the balance right

Ideally, your objectives will provide you with a good balance of challenging but achievable work. There’ll be some ‘stretch’ work in there (perhaps based on your areas for development from last year), mixed with other areas where you are more confident and comfortable. It can be tempting to remain well inside your comfort zone, or to stray too far outside it. You’re most likely to enjoy your work and perform well if you’re getting a bit of both - comfort and challenge.

  1. Review your progress

It’s very easy to write your objectives at the beginning of the year and then only look at them twice more, at mid-year and end-of-year appraisal time. The ideal is to revisit and update them regularly – it’s natural that your objectives will change as priorities shift, and work is dropped or introduced. Try and add some specific progress review points to your objectives.

The other benefit to reviewing your objectives is that it takes away the pressure to write the ‘perfect’ objectives from the outset, which can sometimes make it hard to get started.

  1. Write your objectives in a way that suits your own style

Some people prefer longer, more detailed objectives; others, short sharp ones. Personally, I prefer to start with a sentence that describes the outcome I’m trying to achieve, and then write a few bullets which set out my key measures and deliverables – the work I’ll do to achieve it. It’s good to try and ensure that they remain focused, without losing any necessary detail, but, at the end of the day, you’re most likely to remember them if they’re written in the style you feel most comfortable with.

And finally, if you’re a manager interested in learning more about good objective-setting for your team, Civil Service Learning has just introduced a new workshop on the topic which you can book on the CSL website.

Good luck, and do share your own objective-setting tips in the comments section below.

Sharing and comments

Share this page


  1. Comment by Sarah posted on

    I moved jobs within the same organisation at quarter 3. Our end of year evidence templates are capped at 500 words - my roles for the year because of a job change covered 6 pages of ridiculously detailed Whats and Hows. It' s about time this appalling divisive system is abolished. It has affected my confidence and I am now going to look to leave the Civil Service.
    Managers keep changing what Good or exceeded looks like and doubly reward their favourites - with easy to achieve high profile tasks.
    I, and a few of my colleagues have had enough.

  2. Comment by another Terry posted on

    The "help staff to make the most of the current system in place" may have seemed reasonable in the past. But the evidence that PMR has inequitable outcomes , particularly some potentially troubling discrimination issues, really suggests that the duty lies with Cabinet Office HR to reform the appraisal system rather than to us to soldier on with this expensive pseudoscientific process.

  3. Comment by JC posted on

    Ideally, SMART objectives would lead to good competency examples being generated for use in job promotion applications. However, this is not without some serious problems. Each competency contains 5-6 'behaviours'.

    Some Departments only require candidates to demonstrate 'behaviours' which they have selected as relevant (typically 2-3). However, other Departments insist that you meet every 'behaviour' listed, regardless of their necessity. This inconsistency was clear from feedback I've received on 73 job applications in the last 18 months, albeit in 'junior' grades.

    Meeting every 'behaviour' is very difficult because of the limits to only one example being permissible, the 250 word maximum and 'STAR' format. Quality also suffers at the expense of quantity. Some panels would rather you 'tick-box' every 'behaviour' instead of judging the results you achieved. Therefore, your lack of 1 or 2 'behaviours' can fail your application, regardless to their relevance to the post.

    Another flaw in Competency Framework is duplication of very similar 'behaviours' between different competencies. There is huge overlap of very similar activity, such as stakeholder engagement, setting priorities and developing one's own team and so forth.

    The Competency Framework is a very confused and excessively convoluted document. It exhibits symptoms of 'being designed by committee'. Why not merge very similar 'behaviours', or least group them in the same competency?

    I hope that the Competency Framework can be simplified in future. Meanwhile, it would be useful for CSL to clarify across all Departments, on how these rules should be applied consistently throughout the Civil Service.

    • Replies to JC>

      Comment by Michael posted on

      I concur with the penultimate two paragraphs - it is difficult to single out an example when there are overlaps and yes, the CF guidance is convulted.

  4. Comment by Lola posted on

    I welcome information on just how objective setting should be handled: sadly, this is not the reality as my colleagues various replies point out. Those of us who work in big departments doing a generic job role get a generic set of objectives and expectations handed to us with very little wriggle room despite the undertaking to make adjustments for such things as working patterns and experience.
    Despite PCS, for one, pointing out that forced allocation should not be used, it most certainly is - and is more likely to give older workers, part-time workers and minorities that Box 3...

  5. Comment by Janet CSL posted on

    It’s good to see so much feedback and thank you for the thoughts and tips on objective setting some of you have given. Civil Service Learning don’t have responsibility for the Civil Service appraisal system, but what we hope we can do is help staff to make the most of the current system in place.

    • Replies to Janet CSL>

      Comment by William (MoD) posted on

      Dear Janet CSL,
      I cannot agree with that comment.
      If something is not fit for purpose you should not "make the most of the current system in place" - you should replace with it something that works.

      Haven't all the 10 "improvements" over the last 9 years been for that end?

    • Replies to Janet CSL>

      Comment by Mark Parker posted on

      I am not sure that "help staff to make the most of the current system in place" is the best way to approach this. In my opinion, we should continue to highlight its numerous iniquities through staff surveys, academic reports and public forums in the hope that the civil service will eventually realise that it is doing itself absolutely no favours by continuing to make use of this discredited system.

  6. Comment by Lesley posted on

    I have been a Civil Servant for 36 years and so remember when we had job descriptions and the Annual Report was written with this in mind- how you performed, what went well and what needed improvement. In this way everyone was treated individually and not judged against others who may not even be doing the same job. As Senior Managers are keen to emulate the Private Sector shouldn't the ranking of staff at moderation panels be abandoned.

  7. Comment by Kate posted on

    Good advice Janet, thank you!
    I also think it helps to split the objectives into two columns - 'what' and 'how' - so that you can think about behaviours as well as deliverables, and specifically how you need to work with colleagues and/or stakeholders to get your work done.

  8. Comment by Nick S posted on

    Thanks Janet, your suggestions seem to make sense.

    Comments noted above are unsurprising, and there's no denying that private industry has generally abandoned this distribution process, but given the system as is, there are a couple oddities that strike me:
    1) how does it make sense for me to be writing MY objectives - surely it should be my line manager writing the "what" of my objectives ("this is what I want from you this year and when") and I write the "how"... (both in collaboration of course).
    2) the problems of poor staff performance boil down to poor management - whether that's motivation, emotional/mental support and team bonding, or dealing effectively with those who don't WANT to improve performance (vs those who need development). For a line manager, this should be front and centre in their own objectives, and a valid measure of their success.

    If your team is doing badly, it's not their fault, it's yours.

  9. Comment by KJ (MOD) posted on

    I write both civilian and military reports - they are worlds apart. For the military I am able to comment on actual performance; referring to objectives, strengths and weaknesses and potential for promotion - it is personal to an individual and gives their Career Managers a snap shot of how personnel are performing and which fields they are most suitable for in the future. I've been around long enough to remember when my performance and potential was commented on in my annual report - now I have to check my given box markings against a table to see whether I am performing at a satisfactory level or not! I work in a niche area so how can I be directly compared with others in my cohort if none of them work in the same field as me?
    These reports tell potential employers, including those within the CS, absolutely nothing - my ROs are located miles away and we meet twice a year. I am fortunate to have a very supportive military line manger who dispairs at our reporting system and its' worth.
    We have to have something - but surely there's something much better than this out there????

  10. Comment by Barry Owen posted on

    Work hard, be flexible, take on extra duties, cover work areas, deal with disgruntled customers and still get a "Must Improve" box marking because you have been chosen to fill the quota!! Fabulous appraisal system.

  11. Comment by Angie (Bootle) posted on

    Regarding the PMR process- my personal experience of working for HMRC for almost 5 years now is that each Directorate, each Line of Business, each Department, each building and within that each team (and I have been moved to 3 different lines of business within 4 years and lost count of the numbers of teams!!) appear to operate the process differently. There is no consistency to Manager's approach/expectations from it and no standardisation of tools used, to objective setting, nor to the outcomes.
    I refer to earlier comments that Private Industry has now, largely , abandoned this approach to Performance Management as it has been heavily discredited as a useful model of practice for any of the parties involved. In these times of Value For Money urgent questions need to be asked!!

    • Replies to Angie (Bootle)>

      Comment by TM posted on

      This is good advice around objectives so thanks, however I completely agree with this comment.

      This is the main problem with the whole process for me, I have had the same experience there is no consistency whatsoever in the way the process is used by line managers/departments in terms of how they set objectives and to what standard they expect the objectives to be met. In addition there are line managers who do the minimum required and those that put a lot more emphasis on the process. As a result the whole process is fundamentally flawed and not fit for purpose because if the process isn't applied consistently even within the same organisation then the grading is meaningless because you are not measuring everyone at a certain level against the same standard, which surely invalidates the whole process!

  12. Comment by Disillusioned, but forever hopeful posted on

    The PMR system could work, if it was administered appropriately. Unfortunately, all the problems that we have today stem from how badly the process was rolled-out by senior leaders, which has led to confusion, with different teams/business areas operating the system differently, which has ultimately led to a poor standard of PMR's, ineffective conversations and a right shambles at validation.
    I've sat in validation meetings where managers have made comments like 'this person is lovely and comes in, does a good job and then goes home again. Therefore, they are slap-bang middle-for-diddle'. No, what should be happening is that ' based on their PMR, I believe this person has exceeded/achieved/needs improvement because...'.
    To turn this around, we need effective, stretching and personal PMR's that form the basis of monthly conversations and, in turn, validation meetings. Alas, I think that we have gone too far down the current road for Department's to get this process back on track. this leaves us people being giving markings that are based on unconscious bias, goals that people can do in their sleep and roles that are deemed to be better than others of the same grade. It's all so wrong and if I was running a private business with this process in place (as it currently stands), I would have to scrap it, as I wouldn't be able to justify the enormous amount of money that has been wasted...or risk going out of business.
    The Needs Improvement marking is an example of how badly my Department got it wrong when they rolled-out of this process. So many people that I have spoken to feel that Needs Improvement is akin to poor performance. Wrong...they are poles apart. The former is stating that you didn't quite achieve, over the course of the year, the stretching standard you set yourself (with agreement) outlined in your PMR. This should be stretching, but achievable. Poor performance is more around the expectations that my Department (probably common across the Civil Service) sets iro of sick leave, acceptable behaviour and basic skill requirements, etc to do your job. Unfortunately, the boundaries have become blurred to the extent that both Needs Improvement and Poor Performance are deemed to be the same

  13. Comment by The Grumpy One (MOD) posted on

    As a line manager I spend a lot of time helping staff complete their reports and find setting SMART objectives is limited by the type of work staff are required/expected to carry out.
    My staff who have had a box 1, have never had a RO come back and mentor them. The whole system should be scrapped and should a department have a high acheiver who wishes to go for promotion then the job holder/ line manager should fill in a report for promotion. A lower acheiver should be mentored by the line manager and if no improvement is shown go down the dismissal route.
    The larger issue is even with all the mandatory training that some line managers still have favorites and a lot of mangers do not read all the information, of which there is reams of it and lot's of managers prefer people who don't make waves(yes people). This means that good staff who speak up and don't tow the party line are sidelined when these are the people who should be our future managers as they are not scared to put across their views.
    Less time should be spent by Jon Thompson and his team publishing blogs and more time visiting the people on the shop floor who have to cope with aftermath of their decisions. As in a recent town hall talk which I did not attend and the two previous ones which I did senior managments answers on recruiting and staff reports were "I dont know". Well thats a great help they dont take notes, names or get back to people perhaps we should all use that phrase in our jobs when asked questions instead of finding answers..

    • Replies to The Grumpy One (MOD)>

      Comment by ABC123 posted on

      I have been in the civil service now for 9 years, in that time the PARs have changed almost annually, and lets not even mention the competencies which guess what are due to be reviewed in 2017. This current system is too time consuming, why not just recommend those that are working for promotion or have gone the extra mile and deserve a bonus. Put those who aren’t performing on restoring efficiency and just review those doing there job, not everyone want’s to go that extra mile, but this system punishes those that just want do their job with the threat of a Box 3………i wonder if the Civil Service has actually worked out the costing of running the panel boards, with military colleagues sitting there not really understanding the system or even caring as lets face it, if you get a Box 1 you’re not promoted, oh no you still have to pass an assessment before you can even apply for promotion!!!!

      Only 14% of the work force are happy with this system according to the recent Have Your Say Survey…that’s 84% who are not…………wake up , get out of your offices and conduct a proper survey…….These current PARs are demoralising get rid of them.

  14. Comment by Guy posted on

    Take the following with a pinch of salt, I am aware that approaches to the current system are almost as varied as the number of Reporting Officers; however the stipulated marking system does have some interesting points when you consider “Getting the Balance right”.

    In the current scoring system, whether an objective is standard for the grade or challenging for the grade is a huge delineator.

    4 – Exceeded an objective that was standard for the grade
    5 – Achieved an objective that was challenging for the grade

    So if you objectives are standard for the grade, even if you exceed it by far, arguably the highest you can score is a 4. However providing your objectives are challenging (and you achieve them) the minimum you could be given is a 5. Failing a challenging objective is not covered. It may be a fast track to box 3 so tread lightly.

    Play the system, not the game. I suggest they change the system.

    While talking technicalities objectives should be SMERT, E for Exceedable. A for Achievable will limit you to a 3 across the board (unless you took the challenging route). This could put you dangerously close to Box 3, and in the current system avoidance of this is perhaps the only real ‘incentive’.

    • Replies to Guy>

      Comment by S posted on

      What are these 4s and 5s of which you speak? My organisation moved to a 3 box system (exceeded, met requirements, must improve) years ago, i thought that was now civil service norm?

  15. Comment by CA posted on

    It would be great to see some examples of objectives at different levels, across all kinds of jobs. One of the hardest things for some people is getting the wording right when a few examples could really help to get the ball rolling!
    Also are people encouraged to share their objectives with their teams? It seems like doing this would help the team support each other to achieve the objectives rather than working in isolation.
    What do you do in your team?

  16. Comment by HMRC_Minion posted on

    Since PMR has been introduced my 'objectives' have not been looked at when reviewing my end of year appraisal. Not looked at, referred to or even mentioned. Not once...

    So my question would be, what is the point of creating SMART objectives, when they are never looked at again?

    The bottom line is, that I will prepare an appraisal at the end of the year, outlining some of the things that I have done. That will then be compared against the appraisals of other people (who do not do the same job as me) and I will then be pigeon-holed into one of three categories...

    The whole process is far too time-consuming and expensive and needs, at the very least a major overhaul.

  17. Comment by Andy Rouse posted on

    The current Performance management Systems is overly bureaucratic, divisive (as it leads to a dog eat dog mentality and the “look at Me” culture), demotivating, negative (how can telling 10% of your staff they aren’t good enough be a good thing?), subjective, time consuming, gets in the way of delivery and leads to disengagement. All this was fed back as part of the post staff survey results analysis of the areas where we scored badly and presented at the directorate conference.
    The question was also raised around the VFM of such a system and the days lost to the process, appeals and negative impact on staff.
    No one raised anything positive about the system.
    Additionally it was noted that Private Industry has scrapped such an approach to performance management.

  18. Comment by Ben posted on

    Good advice, particularly about reviewing objectives throughout the year as priorities change - thanks Janet!

  19. Comment by Disgruntled Dave posted on

    The problem with advice is two fold firstly it is advise - which if we are honest few people like to take. Secondly it is never specific enough to be of much use. Without decending into the perpetual PAR argument what I would love to see is a system that didnt take at least a day maybe two per JH (when you are an RO) doing discussions, revisions and moderations. Then coping with the extra stress. When do I get to do my job??!!

  20. Comment by Rich posted on

    Thanks for taking the time to share such helpful thoughts Janet! Shame there's already some negative comments about the process (which I think could be improved in 99% of organisations). I hope more of us can use it to make the most of the systems we do have.

    • Replies to Rich>

      Comment by William (MoD) posted on

      Sorry Rich,
      I am one of the negative ones you mentioned.
      My reason is quite simple - I am old enough to remember that we used to have a PAR system that remained much the same for about 17 years.
      But over the last 9 years we have had 10 changes (including one in the middle of the year) and the PAR is now to be done at the same time as end of the financial year. Which is really busy for most teams.

      Constant changes and a quota of "bad-people" do not give confidence.
      I make no apologies for stating my opinion, because as I said - read the survey.

  21. Comment by William (MoD) posted on

    Just read the results from the Have Your Say Survey to find out what we think about the PAR system.

    It's hated, it doesn't work and no one cares.

    • Replies to William (MoD)>

      Comment by Dave (MOD) posted on

      Totally agree William, it is a very unfair system.

  22. Comment by JC posted on

    My tip for preparing each objective is to distinguish between 'Whats' and 'Hows'. The 'Whats' are 'deliverables' to be achieved, including specific tasks, milestones and measures of performance. Such measures are deadlines, output, quality and cost (if relevant). Then in 'How's', one needs to select the relevant 'Effective Behaviours' from the Civil Service 'Competency Framework that are required to accomplish those objectives.

    Doing this enables one to link objectives with wider developmental needs. Most importantly, it helps one to plan for career advancement. It provides clarity for initial preparation of competency-based examples in job applications.

    Finally, I agree that Performance Management data strongly suggests that the process is potentially biased against marginalised groups. However, that's a topic that deserves a dedicated blog. Huge disillusion of the process is now undeniable.

    Disproportionate time, effort and bureaucracy is now devoted to moderation and consistency checks, simply to meet arbitrary 'forced distribution' markings. Would any reputable company adapt such a system and apply it as does the Civil Service?

    • Replies to JC>

      Comment by Juliet, CSL posted on

      thanks for your tip, JC

    • Replies to JC>

      Comment by HDD posted on

      JC, it looks like you've also concluded that the sole purpose of the validation process is to achieve the pre-determined targets. That much is obvious from the official figures in HMRC. The similarities in the mid-year and end-of-year results for both 2013/14 and 2014/15 are very instructive. Were it not for these targets, there would be no need at all for validation and the colossal amount of time needed for it. This system is a damning indictment of the Civil Service. The resource wasted on validation (or as I prefer to call it, invalidation, given that you cannot validate arbitrary dots on a chart without any statistical data to support the placing of those dots in the first place) would be far better spent on doing what the public want, dealing with their enquiries instead of allowing unacceptable arrears to accumulate.

      I don't know exactly how private companies have operated their forced distribution systems but I doubt they had all the validation nonsense as time = money. Any company operating a system like that in the Civil Service would deserve to go to the wall if the directors really were that short-sighted.

  23. Comment by Blue Skinned Beast posted on

    This is great advice - I just we were able to take it. For years now (and this year to come, I suspect) we have been given generic PMR's to agree and sign in a 'one size fits all' type scenario. If you ask for any deviations to the PMR, then you are looked at as being awkward. This is the reality since PMR's have been introduced, I'm afraid.

    • Replies to Blue Skinned Beast>

      Comment by Matt posted on

      Even in the event that you're allowed to deviate from generic PMRs we're still bound by the "guided" distribution which at best sees either satisfactory performance punished or superior performance unrewarded and at worst sees superior performers, those people marked as performing above the standard of their grade in multiple competences and/or objectives being handed box 3's and performance improvement plans.

      No amount of tweaking of objectives is going to make a blind bit of difference unless and until there is a fair and equitable outcome to the meeting or exceeding of said objectives.

      • Replies to Matt>

        Comment by Charlotte Smith posted on

        I agree Matt. One can work really hard and put all their energy, heart and soul into their job, and someone else will do the bare bones, enough to get by, perhaps do the odd training course or two, but their heart is elsewhere on say the latest episode of Game Of Thrones, Is Jon Snow dead or not for example. But yet the preset distribution scheme means that one or both of them is going to get a box 3 or they may both get box 2's. So the incentive to really go the extra mile is lost in the face of this. Not to mention resentment!

        I know that one's performnce has to be looked at, in any job or organisation you would expect that, as after all your employer is not a charity! One has to EARN their money. However there must surely be a fairer way of going about this.

      • Replies to Matt>

        Comment by Dr Carl posted on

        Exactly. I've posted about this (PMR) before, and my comments have been ignored before. And probably will be again. But being ignored won't stop me - because I know I am right. So here I go again: Why oh why do these 'senior managers', top Civil Servants and Dr. Barkers who write these articles, all ignore the elephant in the room. Yes, Performance Management. The hated, unfair and divisive Performance Management. Do they really think that by not mentioning it, it therefore doesn't exist?

    • Replies to Blue Skinned Beast>

      Comment by Darren posted on

      Agree so much. My directorate has generic objectives for each job group, and mine have never actually reflected the job I do - and I'm not allowed to change them. Add to that a further two generic objectives applied to everyone in the organisation - one of which I'll never be able to evidence fully - and I have more objectives than the guidance permits, not one of them SMART. Why do I even bother?

      • Replies to Darren>

        Comment by B Wilson posted on

        My objectives at work are to;
        a) arrive
        b) do my job to the required standards
        c) treat all my colleagues with respect
        d) go home
        Please REWARD those people who take the time to set objectives and aim higher at work and let me attain my own objectives.