In the past several years, I have been working on managing a multitude of requirements within a government project so that the objective was achieved on time and on budget. The lessons learned about setting and enforcing priorities are principles that scale to address our federal spending problem at the highest level and back down through all departments, agencies, programs, and projects.
I think that we have general agreement in our Congress and country that (1) the federal government as a whole spends too much money, and (2) that every item of federal spending has a constituency that says there is not enough spending on that particular issue. The math in that contradiction does not work as more plus more equal a worse spending problem.
Almost every idea for more government spending in isolation can achieve a majority of popular support, so that it is essential to take a more global view of spending in light of the actual constraints of revenue and availability of borrowing from private investors. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and congressional budget committees are supposed to be responsible for taking such a perspective, but that have been corruptly misguided by the political driver of using the budget as a vehicle to manage the distribution of political patronage in our modern Spoils System.
If the correction of the overspending problem is to be achieved as a goal, there are two directing concepts that are required a hierarchical codification for prioritization and a standard to guide it other than the ephemeral advantage of the political class and its key constituencies (a.k.a. factions in the dialect of Madison). This principled solution is in stark contradiction to the political lies offered as solutions such as a balanced budget amendment, line item veto, term limits, and extracting every penny from the “rich” as regardless of the political kabuki in the end our Congress must make hard choices about spending as in what not to spend.
In establishing the standard to guide the prioritization, we must level setting and agree upon a particular true observable fact from reality. Every item of federal spending is rooted in the issue that “we” must do something about a problem; however, the federal government is not and never has been the only mechanism for “we” to act. Independent of government, we are guaranteed freedom of association, which “we” have use to solve problems without government through private charities and businesses; anyone who advocates for a solution to a problem can privately use this right, regardless of a sanction of the majority, to freely cooperate with a like minded “we.” Further, in the genius of our federal system, most solutions that actually requiring a government action, to protect individual rights and subordinated retaliatory force to objective law, are implemented by our state and local governments. Thus, a federal government solution is not required for every “we” must.
Embedded in this recommendation is a particular goal that I have for our federal government and I hope that you share…I want our federal government to be a great organization that achieves extraordinary results, which I mean in the sense identified by Jim Collins in his popular book _Good to Great_. Key to the development of a great organization is the development of a Hedgehog Concept, which Collins defines as the intersection between the answers to three questions that I paraphrase for this purpose as:
- What can the government organization be the best in the world at?
- What fuels the health, vitality, and durability of the government organization?
- What is the government organization deeply passionate about?
My answers to those questions are, and upon thoughtful consideration I am confident that you will agree:
- Within the constraints of our Constitution, it is best in the actual world (as opposed to a Utopian fantasy) at protecting the individual rights of American citizens.
- Capitalism, a political system that protects individual rights, is the fuel of America.
- As found in the Declaration of Independence, the federal government is passionate about the individual’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
As a purpose for our standard of prioritization of federal spending, federal government is an organization that must focus upon, within the context of our Constitution, protecting the individual rights of American citizens so that they are each free to independently exercise their virtue to enhance their life and achieve their own happiness. In applying this standard to issues of prioritization, all of Collins’ Hedgehog questions still apply, especially related to whether the federal government is the best in the world to act and spend in solving the underlying problem consistent with its purpose.
As for the hierarchical codification of prioritization, I have found Agile’s MoSCoW prioritization to be effective at prioritizing a large number of government requirements within a constrained environment, such as limited time and money. In general, there are four tiers with easily understood labels: Must Have, Should Have, Could Have, and Won’t Have; which for our immediate purpose relates to whether a budget item will be in the budget or be completely defunded. Prioritization is done from the perspective of the customer, which we have expressed for this purpose in our standard for guiding prioritization, essentially the purpose. Further, the particular definition of each level is affected by the nature of the project, which for our purpose is budgeting federal spending in a period of transition from overspending to appropriate spending.
To be useful as a consistent and shared prioritization, each level of prioritization must be explicitly defined in writing. Related to prioritizing federal spending so that overall spending is reduced through elimination or possibly deferral of particular spending items:
- MUST HAVE: Only spending by the federal government on this line item can meet the standard and must be funded at some level in order to subordinate retaliatory force to objective law (for example: military spending).
- SHOULD HAVE: While others could be better than the federal government at achieving the purpose through spending, legacy government policy and laws have destroyed or handicapped other actors so that a transition plan, including substantially reforming existing laws, is requirement (for example: Social Security, which has a substantial unfunded future liability that will result in an automatic cut to future benefits).
- COULD HAVE: Only spending by the federal government on this line item can meet the standard but funding is optional/contingent in competition with higher concurrent spending priorities (for example: security improvements at US Embassies).
- WON’T HAVE: These items could be achieved outside of federal spending without substantial legislative revision such as only program elimination and possibly block granting funding to states for a fixed transition time period (for example: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting can be immediately eliminated with Patreon, Kickstarter, and their like privately free to solve the legacy financing problem).
In the first year of use, this federal budgeting prioritization plan could eliminate WON’T HAVE spending and save on COULD HAVE spending by either deferral, reduction, or elimination. In later years, transition plans for SHOULD HAVE spending will reduce federal liabilities and spending over a period defined by law. Future wish list spending proposal would be subjected to the same prioritization to control spending growth. Additionally, the prioritization concept should be used within the departments and agencies to prioritize their spending, which will help controlling for mission creep and rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse.
At this point, you may ask, “How do you know that this plan would work?” While I could cite my professional experience, that success does not address the scaling question, so instead I will point to Albert Gallatin. He was Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, who used the same prioritization to not only balance the budget, but also cut taxes and pay off half the federal debt by eliminating excessive Federalist spending from the prior Administration. Gallatin’s prioritized fiscal discipline enabled Jefferson to seize the opportunity of the Louisiana Purchase.
Contrary to claims that there are no viable solutions, this prioritization concept has already been demonstrated to work in controlling overspending on both the small and large scale, in both the private sector and government. The real question is “Do you really care about reducing federal spending or are you counting on dying before the consequences of our profligacy?” If the later, my daughter literally hates you personally for your irresponsibility in leaving your debts for her to pay. If the former, the above is a real, effective, and simple solution, so go forth and use it.
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