Is Money the Right Metric For Government?

Listening to the media discuss our debt can be exhausting. Every day we are bombarded with huge dollar figures to be dealt with: $14.3 trillion in debt, $38 billion cut this year, $4 trillion proposed cut for 2012. Is that really the discussion that we should be focusing on? Is the 50,000 foot discussion where we need to be spending all our time? As the bombardment drones on, my worry is that we are losing site of the real discussions we should be having, discussions on how we get to those new numbers.

Although we need to keep watching the numbers, transforming the government means we need to spend the majority of our time on, well, the transformation itself. Clearly, therein lies the problem—how do we transform a government that has inconsistent measures of program success? One program discusses success in their customer satisfaction program while another, costing exactly the same, discusses success as purchasing new flak jackets. If these two programs cost the same, we might all vote to keep the additional flak jackets. Yet when we stay at a 50,000 foot level, we may make bad choices. What if I told you the flak jackets were for training summer interns (to replace 2 year old jackets) while the customer satisfaction program was at the Veterans Affairs and improves health care services for returning vets? If we are forced to choose, we need to find some common denominator to compare these diverse programs, and the cost of the program does not appear to be the best option.

In short, the focus needs to be on the outcomes achieved with each of the dollars spent. What are the outcomes of purchasing those flak jackets and how does that compare to the outcomes of the VA customer satisfaction program? When we climb down into the outcome weeds, we can start to have the transformative discussions that are helpful and effective rather than listening to the numbers swirl around and around above our heads.

Next time you hear those numbers being thrown around, and maybe even some discussion of cutting this or that program or agency, stop and think about how that discussion can be changed to reflect a more meaningful assessment of the situation at hand.

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