Austerity best served with a healthy dose of collaboration

Columnist Stan Soloway says the best way to weather the coming years of government austerity is for agencies and contractors to collaborate on the best and most cost-effective solutions.

It's no secret that today’s intense federal budget pressures will stay that way for the foreseeable future. Moreover, as mandatory spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the national debt increasingly dominate the federal budget and deficit, traditional means of balancing the budget that worked reasonably well in the Reagan and Clinton years — specifically adjusting federal annual discretionary spending to match annual revenues — aren't likely to be enough to compensate for our deficit and debt dynamics.

Against that backdrop, a fierce debate is under way over how best to right the government’s fiscal ship. That debate will significantly affect federal spending this year and through the next several years. And it will increasingly be driven by the 2012 congressional and presidential campaigns, which are already shifting into high gear. Of course, campaign dynamics typically favor solutions intended to solve problems immediately. But our fiscal quagmire requires a longer view that addresses structural challenges typically considered untouchable, especially in an election year. That dichotomy might well be the biggest problem faced by the Obama administration and Congress.

Regardless of what it looks like, austerity is here and will be felt by federal employees, contractors, grantees and, of course, the public. As the administration and Congress determine how to move forward, it would behoove them to take a careful look at how other countries, particularly the United Kingdom, are implementing their austerity programs and perhaps even take a page or two from their playbook.

Beyond programs that the U.K. government has decided can and should be eliminated, civil servants and their contractors are working together to identify ways to achieve sometimes daunting austerity goals. They are scouring programs for everything from unnecessary contract or manpower requirements to bureaucratic processes that add little or no value. Although those efforts will help immunize individual programs against arbitrary reductions and are largely tied to prescribed savings targets, they are also driving toward sustainable efficiencies in place of broad, arbitrary and potentially temporal cuts.

That approach ought to be at the heart of U.S. austerity efforts as well. A truly collaborative process between agencies and their contractors and grantees represents the best means to root out real inefficiencies and waste. It is a far more effective tool than indiscriminately slashing funding, especially when there are no corollary reductions in program requirements. Frankly, the same holds true for mandatory pay or hiring freezes for federal employees. Rather than simply dictating across the board reductions or freezes, the first order of business should be redefining agency mission needs in light of today’s fiscal realities and then collaboratively identifying the most efficient ways to meet those needs. Only then can a reasoned determination be made about the appropriate numbers and skills of federal employees or contract support required to successfully meet the mission.

In simple terms, we need to replace the usual we vs. they mentality with an us mentality and demonstrate faith in the common sense and abilities of the people, regardless of sector, who work so hard on the government’s behalf every day. Unfortunately, industry/government partnership and collaboration are at a frighteningly low ebb. But there is nothing like a crisis — and the austerity we face certainly qualifies — to provide an opportunity to begin to reverse that troubling trend.

Moreover, leaders from the deputy secretary of Defense to the administrator for federal procurement policy have begun stressing the importance of revitalizing the nature and quality of industry/government communications.

We face some tough decisions and problems. And there's no time like the present to turn people loose and enable their commitment to mission, deep knowledge and creativity to help lead the way forward.

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