Have you noticed that the more America cares about something, the more she screws it up?
From education to healthcare to crime to terrorism to disaster relief to taxation to foreign policy to whatever; anything that the politicians get their paws on is sure to take a turn for the worse. Moreover, the longer they hold on to it, the more harm they do. The media doesn't help with it's hype-obsessed approach, but that's a separate story.
Education has been at the forefront of political debate for as long as I can remember, but this year 7,200 American students will drop out on every school day. Look at America's foreign policy history of "anointing" leaders (just in the Middle East: Saddam Hussein, Hamid Karzai, the Taliban, etc.); or how Hurricane Katrina was handled; or how many people in this country die of preventable diseases; or the "war" on drugs; or crime-prevention efforts that result in more crimes and more criminals in jail year on year.
The list is endless, as is the complexity of each of these programs. It seems that everything this country cares about must be huge, intricate, nuanced, and over-manned. If it isn't we don't care enough. If we don't throw enough money at it, we're not really committed. Therein lies the rub, the fallacy, and our failure.
What can be done to create a more productive system? Whatever it is, it's for sure not as simple as I'm about to make it. Or is it? Is that our problem? We like complexity? It's much easier to hide (or hide things) in a tree/bush/shrub/etc.-ridden forest than in a less-cluttered place like an empty parking lot. Ask people in the government and they will affirm that it's an incredibly complex and nuanced thing - this is why the 2008 Federal Budget numbered 2,200 pages.
Warren Buffet once said that "business schools reward difficult complex behavior more than simple behavior, but simple behavior is more effective." Most corporations and governments are rife with business school graduates. Maybe not such a good thing... We should not take this idea that complexity is good, inevitable, and to be cherished as truth or acceptable.
What if three things were to change:
- Spend well - most budgets are funded based on LOBA (lower of budget or actual), which is fine when you have a ton of money and no accountability. It favors those who spend, not those who do. What if this changed - budgets are now zero-based (start from scratch), and funded based on outcomes. There will be multi-year projects that need to maintain funding, but they should be assessed based on what got done in the current year and whether it's time to increase, reduce, or cut the investment. The goal should be (for the 1st year) a budget that is 10% the size of the current one - 220 pages.
- Rewarding completion - why don't things stop in government? So many projects (largely due to #1) go on and on and on, just because departments measure success based on funding; and cutting things admits a need for less money. We should reward good completion - it could be as simple as a bonus (to the government employees, not the contractors) for finishing a project on time, on budget, and closing up that shop. Those people should be first in line for the next cool thing to happen, because they got it done the last time. I'm not sure what the real goal should be, but my gut says 80% of programs 20 years or older should be cut, and 20% of programs younger than 20 years should be cut - every year.
- Being accountable for less - this is big. I've never seen any successful project get done when it had more than three objectives. In fact, the most successful ones have just one. When you try and do everything for everyone, you end up doing nothing for anyone. We must only fund programs that have a clear, singular, time-limited objective. It's true that some things are not time-limited - defense or social security come to mind - and that's fine, they should be the exceptions. The goal should be for every project to have a clear, specific and timely outcome. If it doesn't, it doesn't get funded.
I know I've focused solely on money, but look at how things get done in government, it boils down to he who has the $$ has the power. Let's temper that power a bit...