Further reflections on the Sequestration landfall

In a Friday conversation, a colleague shared that the previous post failed to capture the true cost of Sequestration’s landfall:

“There are many difficulties working in government…the agencies, and the Cabinet Departments, just like big organizations in the private sector, have a lot of inertia, and it takes a long time to get things done. But one historic advantage that government programs and managers and individuals in government had always enjoyed was stable resource levels. You could be sure of your funding going forward, and make corresponding long-range decisions.

Sequestration has taken that away. It’s not simply that in past months and especially recent weeks government planners have been forced to plan for the Sequestration…it’s that they’ve been constrained in the progress they can make toward their larger missions and mandates.”

My colleague went on to remind me that in recent months, but to some extent going back to last summer, agencies had been forced to refrain from obligating funds they could no longer be sure they’d have. Government contracts and grants are largely contingent year-upon-year on continued funding. They aren’t allowed to commit funds that aren’t in hand, and they’re carefully worded that way. Historically, contractors, vendors and grantees have understood this. They recognize when committing to long-time government collaborations that there’s this risk involved, but for most of past experience the risk has been small, because government could and did maintain a multi-year view.

Consider one small example: the National Weather Service NEXt-generation Doppler weather radar (NEXRAD) system put into effect over the 1980’s and 1990’s as part of the last NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring. NEXRAD provided new national capabilities…earlier and more reliable detection of tornadoes, in particular. But it also replaced an earlier generation of weather radars…the WSR57’s…that relied on obsolete technology – vacuum tubes – and that required increasing maintenance. That maintenance had been growing prohibitively expensive because basic parts could no longer be procured. [The “57” part of the acronym stood for the year 1957. The equipment was thirty years old, and the technology even more dated…going back to World War II.] Private-sector planning and design competitions for the radar contracts could go forward with the assurance that the government would continue with the buy. Procurement spanned a decade, but there was never any real doubt over that period that government would follow through until the end. This is a small example. Big DoD system purchases, NASA satellite building and launch, and other projects have followed similar procedures and guidelines. There was extensive experience and it had largely been consistent.

In the same way, the engine of innovation that helps the United States… a mere 4% of the world’s population… maintain its world leadership is critically dependent upon year-to-year continuity of funding.

Sequestration has changed those ground rules. It hasn’t just reduced the time available for thought and planning. It’s handcuffed agency abilities to translate thought into decisions and action. Government leaders and managers at every level find their hands tied. Needed programs haven’t been killed, but they’ve been idled. The system has been paralyzed. That paralysis has spread throughout the private-sector collaborating with the government on everything from national defense to transportation security to health care. It is similarly negatively impacting research and technology at research universities. It’s also frustrating state governors.

The federal government, like all other large entities, can’t stop on a dime. It’s not dissimilar from a one-thousand-foot oil tanker at sea, which has a turning radius measured in many miles. When the sequester hits, government services such as weather forecasts and air-traffic control will continue. They won’t come to an abrupt halt. The most serious and deleterious effects of sequestration will appear gradually, over any ensuring weeks and months. But many of those impacts will have in fact been set into motion over the past six months. The clock won’t simply start ticking on March 1.

We should all keep in mind that the sequestration is not an asteroid that’s visited from outer space…something that couldn’t be averted. It’s a human construct, the result of a set of decisions made by political leaders… decisions that place higher priority on political conflict than on conduct of the Nation’s business. Down the road, some of those same folk will feel it expedient to criticize federal government and federal workers as the enemy, as being ineffective, as being inferior in some way to private enterprise. They’ll ask…why is government progress so herky-jerky?


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2 Responses to Further reflections on the Sequestration landfall

  1. Eve Gruntfest says:

    Bill – i just reposted this on my fb page. Your comments capture the impacts of sequestration so thoughtfully. Thanks for doing this —I am so sad about how government workers are perceived. When I used to visit Washington I always was impressed with the brains and dedication of the people working here as federal employees as scientists, administrators and in other positions. Now that I am here and working for the federal government my positive views have been reinforced. But the conventional wisdom is underservedly negative.

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