Bring on the Drastic Debt Deal Cuts!

So it looks like a debt deal will be reached today.

No matter what the final legislation looks like, one thing is certain: there will be massive cuts.

And I’ve got to admit something – I’m excited about it.

You see, there are two responses in times of austerity:

The temptation for leaders in the coming months will be to focus on the first response while neglecting the second. But I firmly believe in the following statement:

Nothing sparks creativity like a lack of resources.

I would argue that now is a great time to do both: retract AND reinvent.

Here are three ways that government can achieve both:

1 – Buy out bored, biding-their-time employees. In a previous organization where I worked, there were a lot of retirement age employees who were dozens of very nice people that had spent their careers serving customers…but who were simply holding on to the job and not performing at previous levels. They were waiting for a more ideal date to retire, padding their pensions in the process. The organization offered buyouts to those employees in order to reduce staff size and achieve cost savings. I have no doubt that your agency, city or state government office is filled with these folks. And these budget cuts are a great opportunity to offer them an elegant exit into a well-deserved retirement.

2 – Abolish old (and new) buildings. In a previous post (“Mr. President: Tear Down Those Walls”), I said “Forget ‘design.’ Think ‘destroy.'” Let’s take a careful look at Federal building utilization and make tough decisions to eliminate and consolidate space. In my previous post, I outlined several reasons for this action (they reinforce silos, create long commutes, steal green space and suck energy), but I’d also add that demolishing old offices and denying new building requests could generate new ways of being: What if we set up co-working centers on a regional basis? What if we co-located employees based on function instead of agency? What would be the cost savings if we allowed more people to work remotely? These are the questions that every agency needs to start asking.

3 – Institutionalize incentives for creativity and opportunities for collaboration. Once we right-size staffing and foster new configurations of the working environment, the time will be ripe for re-thinking the way we think about performance. With fewer people and offices, “work” becomes less about job title and function and more about (virtually) assembling the right people for the right projects. We can think more about task accomplishment rather than time allotment. How can we scale the President’s SAVE Award – maybe even mandating some variation of the process in every agency? How can we adapt programs like the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) where employees with a proven skill or experience rotate from agency to agency to solve challenges or consult with key stakeholders to replicate their success?

So those are some of the reasons why I’m saying “bring on drastic budget cuts.”

What do you think?

Are we in a moment of crisis or opportunity…or a bit of both?

What are your ideas for maxing out the era of austerity that is about to engulf us?

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Terrence (Terry) Hill

I’m with you Andrew! This is a bitter-sweet moment for all conscientious Federal employees. I fear arbitrary cuts, but look forward to participating actively in addressing the issues you raised. This time is right for major reforms of the way we work that will result in major savings. We need to look for opportunities to simplify, automate, delegate, and reengineer work so that every individual can make a difference and exercise all their strengths for the common good. Tally ho!

Alicia Mazzara

I read this Paul Krugman op-ed in the NYT last night about how massive cuts were going to torpedo the already limping economy – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/01/opinion/the-president-surrenders-on-debt-ceiling.html. While I think that there many be some opportunities here — as in any crisis — to rethink and reform government, there also comes a point when budgets are so tight that things grind to a halt. I think there’s a big challenge ahead.

Candace Riddle

I think we’re in a moment of both. Here is why:

Opportunity – The opportunity to reengineer, improve business processes and cut costs about right now. It is going to take a great deal of courage and creativity from our leaders, but the opportunity is there.

Crisis – I believe we may still see a bit of crisis in the long-term. Our inability to resolve the political gridlock between the two parties has put some of America’s biggest investors (e.g. China) on the alert. China, as one of the biggest investors in U.S. debt, would have encountered some big problems if the U.S. defaulted. Once seen as an impossibility (too big to fail), America’s large amount of debt may look more concerning to investors like China. The political grid-lock was, perhaps, a bright spotlight that highlighted an otherwise ignored issue for many investors. Crisis averted…I’m not sure.

Check out this issue from PRI for more information on China’s view of US Debt.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Thanks, Alicia. The comments on that post are worth a read as well. Pretty enlightening in terms of both nuance and electorate mood.

Christopher Whitaker

What am I supposed to do? There’s no extension of unemployment in the deal and House Republicans will fight their continued existence. Because Congress has ignored job creation, unemployment is still going to be sky high in December and there all going to be pounding down the door wanting help…help that I’m not going to be able to give them.

Julie Chase

1. I agree with you there. The older bored employees ARE looking for buyouts, however, they aren’t forthcoming in some agencies and run amok in others. Also, the buyouts are the 25K pre-BRAC dollars, and the seniors aren’t retiring for 17K when all is said and done. Jack it to today’s dollars and you’ll have a few bites, especially in DoD. My DH has less than a yr and if uncle sam offered a VSIP of 35K, he would leave within the hour. There is a push on to get rid of any remaining CSRS folks, but in DoD DoN, the money is not forthcoming, so they are staying. This is the real world.

2. I can only speak from a military installation worker point of view, we only have so much space to “expand”, and yes, bldgs. are being torn down and are not being replaced. At this stage of the game, that is a good strategy. My commute is a straight 20 miles one way so I can’t complain. My dept could not be co-located, we have to be there, in the bldg. we are in providing service to the war fighter.

3. Institutionalize incentives for creativity and opportunities for collaboration. DoD (outside of DC) won’t do that, but it sounds good. We are at task accomplishment vs. time allotment, because it takes 6 months to order IT hardware when it should only take a week at the most.

IMHO. Bring the troops home, close 1/2 the bases in Europe, relocate bases on the border south & north. Let each state decide how they will educate it’s children. Allow drug testing for welfare recipients. End farm subsidies. Start calling in those who owe us money, if it’s in the ME, just send tankers, I’ll let you know when the debt is paid. In the meantime, move forward with clean use of energy and build hybrids that can hold more than my purse & stick of chewing gum. Stop policing the world and focus on the mess in our own back yard.

Ed Albetski

Good post, Julie! I don’t know, Andrew. I don’t share your enthusiasm. The draconian cuts the Fed will be under will not make for a great work environment. Sometimes, no matter how good your people, you just need warm bodies and you won’t be able to hire. Those with the wherewithal will jump to a less stressful job within the agency or without. Saying “Oh, boy! What an opportunity!” reminds me of Boxer the work horse in ANIMAL FARM with his “I will work harder”. Somehow I suspect our own Congressional pigs at the troth won’t let him have a good end. But, of course, we can do nothing to change our circumstances, so we might as well smile. We might get kissed too.

Julie Chase

Thanks Ed. Working outside the (beltway) aka, “the land of oz”, gives a clearer perspective of what the real world in government is like. We are in a hiring freeze and a pay freeze. It may not be so for some in the fed, but here, it’s very real and you deal with it. Being innovative, and modern, will get you nowhere at this stage of the game. Right now, as civilian Marines, we pull up our big person pants, deal with it, and adapt. There is no pie in the sky, if you think so, see NAV order 39950.4a para 5c, section 2. <G>

Denise Petet

I think my biggest concern is….I think many can see that things need to change or that there are opportunities there to stream line, boot out the coasters, maybe get rid of 3 of them and replace them with one eager beaver who’ll do more than spend their day sitting in their office listening to baseball games (Nothing is worse than a manager in ‘retirement mode’…marking time and just being ‘there’ as they ignore anything that needs to be doen so they can leave it for their successor)

But, with all the opportunities, there will still be massive obstacles. Too many people higher in the chain of command that will struggle to ‘keep things the way they were’. Friends of friends taking care of each other and using ‘the budget’ as an excuse to short change others or cut programs that were always pet peeves.

You’d like to think it’ll be an opportunity, and in some places it will be. But in others it’ll just be the same old depressing red tape as the old and entrenched cling to their familiar, even if that familiar is totally wrong for the present times.

What many places will need is upper management buying into the whole streamline and creative thinking, and when they run into middle mangers dragging their feet….well those are the positions you cut. Along the line of ‘our new corporate philosophy is……and if you can’t support it, then I’ll replace you with someone that can’.

In many cases, there are employees that have great ideas, but those ideas never go anywhere because of middle managers that feel threatened by them.

I’m afraid what we’ll see is a lot of posturing, a lot of exaggeration to make a point, a lot of party line sniping as one side or the other works to prove just how good/bad the budget is. And as long as they stay focused on tearing each other apart…they get so caught up in their little battles they forget the ‘war’ that we’re all stuck in.

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Christopher – As an Employment Security Specialist, you may have the best perspective on the potential impact of any cuts – at least on the state and local level. I don’t have a good answer for job creation. I’m wondering if the private sector will end up having more jobs…or do they retract, too?

Julie – Great insights and alternative solutions on the first post. You seem less optimistic in response #2. Since you’re at Camp LeJeune and will likely see some DoD-related cuts, do you think there are opportunities to become more efficient here?

Ed – I’m not sure if I’d call it “enthusiasm” – I can’t get too happy about people losing jobs and important programs being slashed. But with every crisis comes opportunity, and when our backs are against the wall as a nation, we find a way to get ‘er done. I hope this is another one of those moments where we put our noggins together and come up with a way to rebound as we’ve done before…and with some perspective. Or are we facing a new game here as China overtakes us as the economic power (and owns our debt).

@Denise – You’re actually in a fairly innovative environment, right? Isn’t KDOT known for trying some different approaches to engaging with citizens?

Jay Johnson

Bring on reinvention! Here’s some suggestions

  1. Congress works for half price – you’re more responsible than anyone for this mess, show some goodwill and take the first step (that’s what real leaders do)
  2. Cut spending – a messy issue but it’s got to be done. No more ‘scared cows’ anymore; everything’s fair game to justify its existence
  3. Tax hikes – hopefully the first two steps will show the American people that our government is making sincere attempts to right past wring. Knowing this, I believe most people will (even if begrudingly) understand that it’s a necessary sacrifice that needs to be done. No free lunches!
  4. Process Improvement – here’s where the reinvention happens. While some might think improvement techniques like lean six sigma are cliched, they can and do work. Now after we’ve cut spending and pissed off the citizens with higher taxes, refocusing how to deliver value to our customers will be very important.

This isn’t the hope and change most of us want, but wake up and smell the coffee. Like winning WWII or putting a man on the moon for previous generations, this is our challenge.

Dennis McDonald

I tend to be a “glass half full” person so I’m trying to be optimistic. Unfortunately one of the realities is that there are many ideologically-focused citizens who are actively engaged in the destruction of government programs as an end in itself. Trying to do “more with less” in that type of environment could be a hopeless sell.

Last December on this topic I wrote “Can Collaboration Technologies Help the Government ‘Shrink Smart’?” (http://www.ddmcd.com/smart.html). I would be very interested in whether anyone thinks the ideas here are worth pursuing. Or, is it pie in the sky to think that the days are over for trying anything new in government — at least till the Chinese are the first to land on Mars?

Denise Petet


I do think we are fairly innovative. We have an online community where people can join and talk ‘face to face’ with our people. When we dicuss projects for upcoming budget years we hold public meetings to get local citizens input.

I think when some of that burocracy is stripped away and people talk to people, while the outcome may not always be what everyone wanted, it can at least be understood. ‘i know you want this road rebuilt but we can’t do that and this is why….’ etc.

I just don’t know if I ever see the federal government doing anything like this, because it’s not easy. You get yelled at. You have to cop to and explain mistakes. You get held accountable.

now while your generic federal government is used to being yelled at, they’re not always so good at copping to and taking responsibilities for mistakes and they’re not that good at taking accountability. The preferred way to handle things seems to be finding a scape goat and then hushing it up.

We saw this horrible dysfunction in the healthcare ‘debates’ when both sides spent their time tearing apart the other rather than trying to find a compromise. this whole budget mess was more brats in a sandbox fighting over the same toy rather than adults even trying to work together. The only thing both sides agreed on is that it’s the other side’s fault for not doing what I want.

I think if all this budget cutting happens, there needs to be no pet projects, no earmarks. Programs and projects shoud not be judged on who has the best lobbying firm but whether or not they do the most good for the most people while also being fiscally responsible. I think this ‘super committee’ should be held accountable for the decisions they make. ‘we cut this program and this is why’..’we kept this one and this is why’….explain and defend their actions.

I’d like to think that the cutting of programs, etc, will bring a focus on more of the ‘greater good for more’ than ‘making sure i get my cut before the pie is gone’, but I just can’t see it happening. I’m afraid the innovation and common sense will get swamped by ‘sure, cut the budget, just not mine’. the ever shrinking budget will be an ever shrinking life boat where people get more and more vicious to stay inside.

Julie Chase

@Andrew, not less optimistic, but more of a realist. It’s not all “shiny, happy people” in DoD (outside the magic kingdom of DC). Processes are in place at DoD, DoN, and it’s the letter of law, not the spirit of the law. The suggestions I gave at the bottom of my first post are my experience in chatting with others, not only in the workplace, but in the neighborhood and in the community. NC is a military friendly state, we like it that way, so we don’t want another BRAC. I have been through a BRAC, it’s not pretty. Since I have been subscribing to various gov message boards, I have noticed that there are “alot” of GS 14, 15, and way up on the food chain. GS12 is as good as it gets in any one organization here, and for me, heading up the hill at break neck speed to that number, is not for me. My frustration with “cuts”, is….they start cutting at the GS4, 5, 6 level, and cut the “support” system right out from under an organization, when we all know, the fat rises to the top. You want the bored seniors out, “buy ’em out”, they will go. My DH is would go in a heartbeat, “if the price is right”. All the CSRS dinosaurs will head to the hammocks. Cutting at the other end leaves alot of “303”‘s struggling. If you are a “young go getter millenial”, DoD may not be your thing. Change and innovation does not come from bottom up, it comes from the “top down”. I would like to say we are in a moment of opportunity, but that is the idealist in me talking. Private companies do well with moderization and innovation because there is a “profit” to be made. Production in gov shows no profit. And when you freeze someone’s wages, well, you know.

Steve Richardson

Private or public sector, easy times encourage waste and tough decisions don’t get made until we have to. The thing is, austerity doesn’t always lead to the right decisions. Decision makers still want to avoid the tough choices and tend to try keeping everything alive (protecting fiefdoms) with fewer resources. This doesn’t work because the most effective units (those already running at maximum output) are crippled and the cuts to ineffective units aren’t even noticed because they were wasting plenty of resources, anyway. The tough choice is to prioritize – fund productive activity while ceasing activities that cannot demonstrate effectiveness. The problem in the public sector is that funding decisions are seldom made by agency leaders. Congress’ performance is measured by spending, not program effectiveness.