How to survive an austere budget

With a bipartisan drive toward cost cutting, expect lean times ahead.

Fiscal 2012 promises to be a lean year for many agency programs. The proposed budget, influenced in part by a new emphasis on cutting government spending, has a long way to go before it is final, but no one doubts the end result will require a great deal of belt tightening.

The Obama administration has been warning agencies for months — even before the midterm elections put deficit-hawk Republicans in charge of the House — that they’ll have to tighten their belts to the point of nearly cutting off circulation. (It’s a metaphor.)

Back in June 2010, Federal Times reported that the administration expected agencies to have to trim as much as $75 billion in discretionary spending. The bulk of the cuts — about $54 billion — were to come from agency programs deemed to be unnecessary or performing poorly. In particular, Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget at the time, cited programs in science, technology engineering and mathematics education; youth mentoring; and employment and training assistance.

In all, Orszag named more than 250 programs that fell into those categories, according to the Times.

Since then, Republicans have come to town with a drive to dramatically cut spending. They don’t have a majority in the Senate, but they do control the House, which is where a lot of the budget wrangling will take place.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), new chairman of the House Budget Committee, delivered the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union address. Although he said the federal deficit has grown over many years and through various combinations of Republicans and Democrats in control of the White House and the two sides of Congress, Ryan eventually laid the blame for the current situation at Obama’s feet.

"Unfortunately, instead of restoring the fundamentals of economic growth, he engaged in a stimulus spending spree that not only failed to deliver on its promise to create jobs but also plunged us even deeper into debt," Ryan said. "The facts are clear: Since taking office, President Obama has signed into law spending increases of nearly 25 percent for domestic government agencies — an 84 percent increase when you include the failed stimulus."

He added, "All of this new government spending was sold as 'investment.' Yet after two years, the unemployment rate remains above 9 percent, and government has added over $3 trillion to our debt."

With both political parties feeling the heat and the chief executive and legislative branch expressing a commitment to cutting the budget, agencies better be prepared for much greater scrutiny of IT programs, along with everything else. Documenting the investment, return on investment and value of IT efforts has never been more important, if agencies want to keep them.

Professional and technical service contracts are on the chopping block, and lawmakers have already called for scaling back the federal workforce, so agencies can expect to have fewer people available, whether in-house or outsourced.

However, tight economic times can be golden opportunities for some technologies. Cloud computing, in particular, stands to gain ground if its advocates can prove that it saves significant money while offering the same level of IT performance. Now is a great time for innovative solutions with demonstrated economic advantages.

Whatever the final budget numbers might be, there is no doubt that in 2012 and for many years to come, the federal government will be expected to operate with fewer resources. And there’s not much talk these days of doing more with less. Instead, the zeitgeist seems to be to do less with less. Get ready, America.

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