Could budget cuts inspire true innovation?

Tight budgets will put constraints on agency ambitions, but sometimes a constraint can provide a structure for building something inspired.

Everyone's afraid of the budget. We all know that for at least a few years, the federal budget is going to be drastically reduced from the levels it has been – or at least, that's the trend of rhetoric.

And so, agencies are scrambling to adapt in anticipation of coming cuts. They'll be trying to figure out ways to retain programs at lower levels, and to identify the ones they can eliminate with the least amount of damage.

But maybe there's another way to look at it. It's often said that trimming available resources forces people to be more innovative. The difference here is one of degree: We're not expecting a trim but a clear-cut. Or as GSA Administrator Martha Johnson put it in a speech at the Executive Leadership Conference, not a diet but a stomach-stapling.

Is that as catastrophic as some are suggesting? Consider the words of author, peak oil theorist and social critic John Michael Greer, who wrote:

Beauty is inseparable from limitation: the stricter the limits, and the more fully they're accepted, the greater the beauty. That's why art becomes truly great when it embraces formal structure, and also why so much modern poetry is so awful; a really great poet can make the limits of language provide the necessary limiting factor, but anybody else needs structures … or they just produce shapeless mush.

Limits do indeed compel innovation. Drastic limits, such as are likely to come in the next budget cycle, can compel a complete rethinking and overhaul of the way government works. For years, we've been reading, and writing, articles quoting business process experts who urge readers to not just add a new technology for efficiency, but to re-engineer the business processes to make full use of it.

This new era we're entering is one in which that wisdom will become urgent. No longer will it be optional to fundamentally reconsider standard modes of operation, it will be essential. The end result will no doubt be a government that does less, spends less, provides less than it has in the recent past. But it might also be a government that does what it does more elegantly, efficiently and wisely, if agency leaders take seriously the reality of the time and approach it with eager creativity rather than grudging compliance.

Beauty is not the aim of government. But if agencies put their minds to it, and create innovative ways to operate in an era of greatly limited resources, that would have a sort of aesthetic pleasantness of its own.

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