Monday, September 23, 2013

Government and the Death Spiral of Status Quo

Status quo, you know, is Latin for 'the mess we're in'.- Ronald Reagan

I would say any behavior that is not the status quo is interpreted as insanity, when, in fact, it might actually be enlightenment. Insanity is sorta in the eye of the beholder. - Chuck Palahniuk

Some say that I should settle down, go slower and not push so hard, so quickly for such transformational change. To them, I say that you misunderstand the size of the problems we face, the strength of the status quo and the urgency of the people's desire for change. - Eliot Spitzer <<Great quote – questionable origin :-) >>

Minority House Leader Nancy Pelosi announced late last week that there was no point for Republicans to demand more cuts in the Federal budget because “the cupboard was bare”.  The Republicans are countering with the opposite message – that there is a LOT of fat that can be trimmed.

Their claims are fairly typical of governments in Canada and the US, at the federal, state / provincial and municipal levels.  Governments are constantly singing the blues about the financial difficulties that they claim to be experiencing while opposition parties exaggerate the amount of excess that can be cut from budgets.

There is a slight problem with these claims.

They are for the most part a lie …. for the moment.

But if we don’t do something more strategically and tactically intelligent soon, they will become a very painful, unrecoverable truth.

Their claims and the studies that back up those claims are often supported by people who have everything to win by protecting the status quo.

Unfortunately, those same claims, while benefiting many in the short term, will punish everyone in the long term.

The waste is indeed everywhere

Having consulted to all three levels of government in multiple countries for more decades than I want to admit, I am astounded by the waste of I have witnessed.  To write stories about it here would take hours to read and would be only the tip of the iceberg.

But is it any wonder that the waste continues?

Think about the parties involved whenever someone demands that an agency be reviewed for waste or opportunities for improvement.  More importantly, put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself if you would act any differently than they do.  The people involved typically include but are not limited to:

  • the people at the agency who stand to lose their jobs if they expose too many shortcomings(would you admit that your job or the job of a colleague was superfluous).
  • the large consulting companies who recognize that if they are too critical of a government client that they may be cut off from a multi-billion dollar cash cow that rewards them quite handsomely.
  • bureaucrats who see change as a threat and therefore strive to minimize or delay change as long as possible (“Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.” - Laurence J. Peter)
  • unions who are tasked with not only protecting their membership but in fact, are constantly seeking ways to expand their membership and their influence.
  • upper / middle management of the agencies being assessed who, having allowed something to grow more inefficient for years, now face personal criticism unless they can justify that not only were they not wasteful with resources but in fact “have suffered from insufficient resources for years”.
  • politicians who find rewards in ensuring that the status quo is not interfered with.
  • people placed in charge of change but who are totally unqualified to make the assessment or to implement the necessary changes (or possibly have a history of failure in this area but are selected anyway).
  • fully qualified people who select the wrong processes or data to analyze / implement change or attempt to bend the wrong processes or data to fit the situation.
  • people who insist on making changes in absence of the knowledge of what motivates people to change, especially within the context of the team being studied (there is no one-size-fits-all rule - successful solutions in one area may not automatically work in another).  << This is a critical, complex and often overlooked or misunderstood element that must be handled appropriately in order to implement change successfully. >>
  • people who are tasked with implementing changes but who have not been given the authority, resources (human, financial or other) or time to implement those changes (the idea being that the existence of a study is enough to keep most voters happy).
  • the inability to break the deadlock between groups that agree that change is essential as long as “my group” is not changed.

Now in fairness, we must accept the reality that the systems that we have created or which we have allowed to grow organically are much more complex than many realize.  Some would posit that the complexity of such systems has exceeded our ability to understand, guide or correct.  But they are that way because we have allowed them to get that way, much in part due to the parties I just described.

All that being said, what is the one voice that is the most important to represent and yet often has the least representation at the table during such reviews?

It is the voice of the citizen – the primary stakeholder whom the agency being reviewed exists to serve.

And while improving things for citizens is often cited as the reason for the study or analysis, when one applies measurable criteria to the study it becomes clear that competing interests ensure that they are often the last ones to be considered since they often don’t have a voice at the table (or their voice is not as loud as the voice of other parties).

So the next time you hear that the cupboard is bare or that another study is being undertaken to determine “efficiencies” that can be realized within an agency, take a look at who made the statement or authorized the study, who is conducting any analysis and who really stands to benefit from any downstream recommendations.

Because discovering who benefits from the analysis and recommendations will help you determine whether the changes being proposed (if any) actually benefit you – the most important stakeholder of all.

And when the wrong people benefit on a regular basis while waste and inefficiency continue to grow, there is ultimately only one measurable result that will be produced.

Do you care what that ultimate result is?

Do you care about the legacy that we are leaving for future generations?

Do you care about creating something better?

Good - what are you willing to do to create it?

In service and servanthood,


I'm not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it. - Niccolo Machiavelli

Addendum – Respect For Those In Public Service

I would be remiss in my duty if I didn’t share my belief that there are many great public servants and wonderful politicians who are truly doing everything they can to make a positive difference to their constituency, state / province, country and the world-at-large, despite popular public opinion to the contrary.

Balancing multiple (often conflicting) demands from a wide variety of people who believe that their needs trump everyone else’s is very difficult to accomplish.

In addition, the complexities of today’s world are not easy to witness, understand or solve.  I have witnessed the disclosure of some information that left me shaken and wishing I hadn’t seen it and yet some people attempt to deal with it anyway at great personal expense.

And besides, if all public servants were truly dead wood, then the world would actually be far worse than it is.

So let’s celebrate, be grateful for and support the public servants and politicians who are actually striving to make a positive difference.

Because the only way we can create that difference is to collaborate with those who believe that a better world is possible – but only possible when we collaborate to create it and not hope that it happens by accident.

Addendum 2 – An Interesting Musing About Healthcare Costs in the US

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