The lost opportunity of the 2012 elections

Among the deficit and debt debate we missed the chance to talk about what a modern government looks like.


I suspect I am like many voters today: interested in, even captivated by, the debates but also wishing that the election were over already. The rhetoric from both sides has been repeated enough that we risk hearing it in our sleep and it would seem that the battle lines are pretty clearly drawn.

At the same time, as I watched the scuffles it struck me that amid all the talk of deficits, debt, and the role of government, a real opportunity has been missed to define what contemporary government really is and how that reality at a time of austerity lends itself to creative strategies that could significantly and sustainably reduce costs while still enabling the government to meet its many mission requirements.

This is not to say that austerity is not real or that we do not need to continually rethink how and where the government spends our tax dollars. But much more could be accomplished more effectively and strategically, if the aperture of the discussion were to be widened.

Specifically, as most people hopefully realize, “government” is not one thing; it is actually a network of delivery mechanisms that includes organic civil servants and the uniformed military, the private sector, universities, state and local governments, and non-profit organizations. Thus, one question we should be asking, but for the most part are avoiding, is how we can capitalize on that network to drive higher performance and lower cost.

The next order question then becomes how we can better capitalize on what is now a firmly embedded relationship between the public and private sectors (to the tune of more than half of the government’s discretionary budget). Yet, while there is always talk about government contracting policy and how to improve on it, much of the talk is either ideologically based (contractors bad, government good, or vice versa) or so focused on increasingly rigid rules to ensure that nothing ever goes wrong, that we lose sight of the broader objective and lose interest in pursuing anything outside the mainstream.

As such, going forward, we would do well to reset the discussion and base it on three main principles.

First, embrace the network, or what some call the “whole of government.” Stop seeking to divide by sector, or vilify one sector for the benefit of another. That just feeds the natural competitiveness between the sectors and fosters a far more politically heated environment than is healthy or necessary. Each has an important role to play. None is entitled to protectionism. And each must play under similar rules of transparency, competition and accountability. Most of all, rather than focusing on how federal dollars are allocated among the components of the network, we should focus instead on the outcomes those dollars deliver.

Second, demand collaboration. Every theory of change management recognizes the importance of, and is largely based on, collaboration. When missions are dependent on a complex, interconnected web of delivery mechanisms, collaboration is even more vital. Unfortunately, despite the administration’s efforts to re-energize communications between government and industry, true collaboration remains the exception and too many individual policy initiatives have suffered the unintended consequence of driving the sectors further apart, rather than closer together. Moreover, while the administration’s most welcome “Mythbusters” campaign stresses the permissibility of communications, the message needs to be that communication and collaboration are not just nice and okay, but are essential, even mandatory, if we are to optimize results.

Finally, we must redefine the meaning of “affordability.” We are told that affordability is one of the reasons we see a dominance of low priced contract awards and we’re told it’s one reason we see contractor margins or staff salaries being arbitrarily capped. But that’s because we too often misinterpret the term. Specifically, the term is generally tied to the amount of funding the government has available at any given moment. This is especially problematic given the typically short and narrow planning horizons that now dominate government.

The real question is how the collective resources of the network can expand that which the government can afford, all with an eye to doing it better-- not to gild the lily, but to deliver solutions in a timely and effective way that optimizes the chances of both short and long term viability.

It’s been done through public-private partnerships for military housing, for energy management initiatives in federal facilities, and elsewhere. But that is all rapidly becoming ancient history. There is far too little discussion today of how alternative financing and other creative and balanced business relationships can enable the government to access more resources and spend smarter. Instead, the operative theory seems to be that more rules, more cuts by fiat, and more distancing of the government from its network partners can solve the problem. And that’s simply wrong.

It’s obviously asking too much to suggest that this kind of discussion be a part of the election narrative. But it’s not asking too much for it to become a part of the transition narrative, regardless of who wins in November. Austerity is real and the challenges we face as a nation are enormous. In the end, we’ll likely only be successful if we demand and drive a very different kind of conversation. A conversation about which we can all say “I approved this message.”