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We face not merely a fiscal cliff but also an administrative one. Whether a small or grand deal comes together and no matter what happens to the Budget Control Act, the long-term drive to reduce deficits and stabilize the public debt means government agencies at all levels of the federal system will, in the next several years, experience significant if not draconian budget reductions. Maintaining a state of denial on this point won’t help.
Hence it does not behoove the country to obsess over higher taxes and the trimming of entitlement programs alone. There is an even bigger shadow on the horizon: the prospect of deep, permanent damage to the nation’s ability to govern itself at the level of providing everyday public safety and public service actions that are assumed by citizens to be automatically a part of living in America.
If this happens, the public outburst of disgust over the negative campaign television ads in the recent election and the exhaustion of confidence in deadlocked partisan rancor in Washington will pale by comparison to what citizens think of their government as a whole.
Rather than just wait to see what occurs, we in the public administration community must think seriously now about ways to avoid catastrophic damage to institutions, programs and projects in which citizens not only depend, but also in a democratic polity, ultimately own.
Several concrete steps should be taken.
One is to avoid across-the-board simple percentage budget cuts. Instead they must be made strategically at the operational level as to precisely where, when, how and how much. While good arguments can usually be made to defend most government programs and projects, some perform absolutely indispensable functions while others are useful but not essential or benefit a few rather than all.
Another requirement is to avoid stopping expenditures that will raise costs in later decades. We must not neglect the maintenance and upgrading of infrastructure, terminate capital or research projects in progress, or disperse specialized workforces that would, after the passage of years, be very expensive to replace. The height of stupidity is to stop such investments now as if there were no future with which to contend.
A third step is called for within public administration’s own culture. For decades we have been celebrating the second and third items in our sacred three E’s of economy, efficiency and effectiveness. Now is the time administrators must return to the first E as well and terminate operations that have outlived their usefulness. Examples are unessential staff units, outdated programs, and secondary missions added to the prime mission over time. Core operations that remain should continue to function at a level of steady dependability that will retain the public’s confidence.
In the realm of social policy where the fate of the most vulnerable is at risk, the damage caused by cutbacks could be partially mitigated by bringing the public and civil society sectors together so they compliment each other’s capabilities rather than merely supplement. One example would be directing agricultural surpluses not only to schools but soup kitchens and food pantries. Another is channeling the long-term unemployed into modestly compensated positions in urban service programs such as AmeriCorps.
Another moral requirement is that politicians must examine their conscience as they face pressure from economic interests in their home state or district to fight to the death in their behalf. Similarly, bureaucrats must counter their normal instincts to practice gamesmanship and infighting in order to keep their domains in tact while others crumble. It is time for patriotism, not cynicism.
Finally, it is essential that the ongoing life of vital administrative institutions agencies be preserved by providing a sense of security to remaining employees and exhibiting by example a “wartime mentality” of perseverance in an emergency. Distinguished federal institutions like the weather service and geodetic survey, leading state departments of transportation, and professionalized police and fire departments must not be allowed to have their morale and hence effectiveness destroyed.
In short, just as a crushing public debt must not be placed on future generations, the same can be said for a devastated public service. If we think public disdain for the conduct of our current political leadership is bad, think of what it would be like if citizens find the safety of food is no longer being checked, their favorite national park closed, their smelly garbage not being regularly collected, or that they are flying while air traffic controllers are on double shifts. Our divided nation would finally be unified, but in outrage and only after the damage is done.
[Note: A different article by the author on this subject is being published in Public Administration Review and is currently online, “Public Administration as Its Own Steward in Times of Partisan Deadlock and Fiscal Stress.”]
Author: Charles T. Goodsell is professor emeritus of public administration at Virginia Tech, where he was a founding faculty member of the Center for Public Administration.