Cutting the Federal Budget: Can it Really be Done Without Everybody’s Help?

Talk of cutting the Federal budget has been going on for months and will no doubt continue for the foreseeable future.  It is interesting to me that the talk has centered, as it usually does, on cutting programs.  Programs with the smallest constituents are clearly on the chopping block and programs that don’t add value should be cut.  However, everyone seems to agree that since only 15 to 25% of the budget is discretionary, cuts of this nature will likely be small – in the range of $100 billion which is small potatoes in a budget of $3.73 trillion (equaling less than 3%).  What gets me is that Congress or the President never talks about increasing efficiency and effectiveness of the government where most savings can be attained with minimal pain to employees and to taxpayers.

The assumption most people make when looking at reducing costs is to cut headcount and other spending like travel, meetings and training.  Why not look first at how efficiently we are spending current dollars? Yesterday I saw a friend that I hadn’t seen for some months.  I asked him how his business was doing (he is in a security related business) and he said that business was good but his work in the government-sector sucked.  When I asked why, he told me that purchasing decisions are made at a regional or national level and his company almost always has problems installing their product in local schools and post offices.  Employees there say they don’t need the product; they didn’t ask for it; and what they are installing won’t help. 

The employees always say that no one asked them what they needed and the products my friend is implementing are a waste of money.  He said, from his perspective, the people who plan and purchase these products don’t have a clue as to what is really helpful to employees in local schools and post offices.  While “one size fits all” may be efficient from a planning perspective, it is all wasted if the product is not used or is perceived as interfering with getting the job done.

When he was telling me this I wondered how many thousands of times a similar scenario is being repeated in government offices all over the country today. In our 30+ years of working with large and small organizations, we have been able to produce substantial savings in every organization that has developed a positive reinforcement work culture. (Ironically the best managed organizations always seem to produce the most savings.)  When employees are given a proper incentive to improve, not always money, they always do. What is the incentive in the Federal government for employees to eliminate or reduce costs?  Since the consequences to employees of a “cut approach” to savings is loss of job or fewer resources with which to work, this usually causes them to defend spending rather than generate savings.

What do you think would happen to the budget if 2.5 million or more Federal employees were excited about improving efficiency and effectiveness of the government every day?  The savings would be enormous! It can be done but don’t hold your breath because creating that kind of workforce requires a change from an entitlement culture prevalent in too many governmental departments today to an achievement culture where managers are totally focused on helping their employees succeed, every day.  Unlikely, but possible!

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Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.