Thursday, December 18, 2008

When Government Needs to Cut

As governors look to trim state spending, there are always going to be critics who say there's no fat that can be found ANYWHERE. Yesterday I listened to a radio program where one of the guests said there was no reason to eliminate schools anywhere, despite shifting demographics that left some existing schools underattended and some areas without the facilities to accommodate growing school-age populations. In times of tight budgets, I don't know how you can expect to open new schools in areas where they're needed without also looking to close schools in areas where they're not.

It reminded my of my first full-time job after graduation. There was a deep recession going on, and I was fortunate to be one of the few members of my graduating class to get a job in my field - journalism. I had a great title - Publications Editor within the Agricultural Communications Department at a publicly funded university. What I realized shortly after joining the department is that my job didn't really need to be done - not by me, not by anyone. At the time, we were producing short stand-alone publications (the equivalent of a magazine article) on home economics topics. All of the writing was done by University professors.

It was decidedly low-tech and the typesetting and production was done manually in a huge building on campus. This was in the early 1980s - just after the introduction of the IBM PC.

What made my job essentially pointless was that there really wasn't an audience for most of the publications I worked on. I saw first-hand how the publications remained stacked up, unread, in that huge printing building. At the time, I was a magazine junkie, and the women's magazines at the time were full of lively articles that did a better job of communicating about most of the topics our department was supposed to be focused on.

I could believe that years, perhaps decades earlier, a department focused on home economics for farm families absolutely made sense. Extension services and communications around topics such as canning, sewing, and cooking would have been hugely valuable to farm wives, many of whom lived in isolated situations without easy access to important information. Especially in food safety areas like canning and cooking, having authoritative guides on how to do things right would have been enormously helpful and healthful.

But that was then. By the time I came along, there was not enough work to sustain my job and the work I was doing was not very useful. On too many days when I would come in, eager to work, there was literally nothing in my in-basket. Since I was part of a workflow (the publications had to be written before I could edit them), if there was nothing there, I really had no work. Furthermore, my boss was extremely uncomfortable whenever I tried to take on additional assignments because she'd had my job before getting promoted and so the fact that I didn't have enough to do likely meant she hadn't had enough to do either.

What kept it going was tradition, the desire to not give up anything in the budget process, and the need of the university professors to have an outlet for publishing. (At one point that year, I was assigned to edit a new publication on earth-sheltered housing, something that struck me as a bit odd. When I dove in a bit deeper, I found that the publication I was working had already been published by a different author in another state. It was a clear case of plagiarism which I reported at the time. There was fallout and some very quiet disciplinary action, but what really dawned on me was that the professor who did the plagiarizing didn't expect anyone to read the publication either and that's why she thought she could safely turn the piece in as her work.) When things get dysfunctional, they often get wildly dysfunctional.

I left that post after about eight months and moved on to a writing job in the high tech sector.

Wow. The worlds could not have been more different. Where my previous job was all about reaching markets that no longer existed, the new job was all about reaching markets that were growing and changing everyday. I stayed at that next job for three years, enthusiastically working long days, and learning as much I could before taking the next step to work at a growing software company in Redmond, Washington.

There are things that government absolutely can and should do. Government plays a critical role in many ways - ensuring access to quality education, setting and enforcing safety standards, protecting natural resources, protecting our national interests, and providing a safety net, to mention a few. Government can and does attract some great people - but it is also vulnerable to a bureaucratic mindset that can strangle innovation and demoralize people who want to find a better, more efficient way of doing things.

Now, with the huge budget cuts being implemented across the country, there are new opportunities for government to reexamine the ways things have been done and try to find new ways of achieving the same or even broader impact by doing them smarter or better. It's not going to be easy. But one of the things that would help is for people who believe that their pet programs should never, ever be cut is to recognize that times and situations change, and that for a lot of reasons, government needs to be more transparent, responsive and proactive about making sure each and every department and job makes sense in the broader context.

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