There is a Place for Intolerance in Good Government

In May of this year, I was listening to a senior government official talk about the fact that he has never been able to understand the rush to spend money that every government official is accustomed to each fall. He asked, with a shrewd look, how many corporations in America live by the “Spend everything!” credo? He reminded us all of an issue that’s been bugging me for years.

The Department of Defense prepares a budget, submits it to Congress, and then is doled out money in small increments (usually 1 to 3 years worth) to accomplish the mission. Money “expires” according to a prescribed time table – money for some purposes has a longer “shelf life” than money for other purposes. If the money doesn’t all get spent by the end of the fiscal year in which it “expires,” the unspent portion goes back into the Treasury.

That could be a good thing, except for the fact that when it comes time for the next budget review, the government officials who saved money – the ones who might otherwise have given back to the tax payers – who some might think did a GOOD job by accomplishing their mission under budget, are actually criticized for not being able to accurately predict their funding needs. Their next budget gets cut by whatever amount they returned to the Treasury. After all, we often hear someone saying, they obviously did not need that much.

Interesting, no? Instead of rewarding government leaders for managing money well and contributing to lowering the national deficit, the net effect is that good stewards are punished by having their spending power reduced. Under this system, the behavior that emerges is a mad rush to spend everything before September of each year. Spend on what, you might ask? Who cares! Just spent it fast! We’re almost out of time!

The government has gotten a bad reputation (perhaps earned) for spending too much. Remember the old $30,000 hammer / $20,000 toilet seat jokes? But the truth is that this problem isn’t as simple as “wasteful government bureaucrats.” Every organization has a system that it must work within. Often, very good people go to work in a bad system and get bad juice all over them.

Now, I hope you don’t consider me unpatriotic or hypocritical for being critical of my government or the system it operates in. I’m proud of who we are and of what we do. I’m also a believer that it is our responsibility to be critical. This is how we get better together.

I was at an awesome conference three years ago. Lot’s of big names were there and it was a limited audience of fairly senior government people. We listened to one speaker run through a list of characteristics – asking each time if we thought the characteristic was an example of good government.

He said “Collaboration!” and all hands went up. He said “Accountability!” and all hands went up. He said “Intolerant!” and maybe one or two overly enthusiastic hands went up – no doubt caught up in the spirit of the moment. He questioned us on that one. Why, he asked, should we be tolerant of things we should not be tolerant of? We’re not asked to check our brains at the door when we report to work. In fact, there are some who believe that service to the country is a responsibility worth taking seriously.

Surely, the government is tolerant in the context of race, sex, age and other basic human characteristics, and that’s a good thing! And we all like to get along and be good neighbors. But there are things that every responsible government employee should be intolerant of. Inefficiencies, redundant efforts, lethargy, silly spending of tax payer money… many things that we ought to be challenging “the system” on. It will only change if we are accountable for our own actions. Defense Business Transformation is about being accountable, and in some cases, intolerant.

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Tim Constantine

Thanks David!

I’m sure that when I show up to many meetings, people want to vote me off the island. But, I think it’s incumbent upon civil servants, at all levels, to be brave and vocal and absolutely unaccommodating to the unacceptable.