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Could budget cuts inspire true innovation?

Everyone's afraid of the budget. We all know that for at least a few years, the federal budget is going to be drastically reduced from the levels it has been – or at least, that's the trend of rhetoric.

And so, agencies are scrambling to adapt in anticipation of coming cuts. They'll be trying to figure out ways to retain programs at lower levels, and to identify the ones they can eliminate with the least amount of damage.

But maybe there's another way to look at it. It's often said that trimming available resources forces people to be more innovative. The difference here is one of degree: We're not expecting a trim but a clear-cut. Or as GSA Administrator Martha Johnson put it in a speech at the Executive Leadership Conference, not a diet but a stomach-stapling.

Is that as catastrophic as some are suggesting? Consider the words of author, peak oil theorist and social critic John Michael Greer, who wrote:

Beauty is inseparable from limitation: the stricter the limits, and the more fully they're accepted, the greater the beauty. That's why art becomes truly great when it embraces formal structure, and also why so much modern poetry is so awful; a really great poet can make the limits of language provide the necessary limiting factor, but anybody else needs structures … or they just produce shapeless mush.

Limits do indeed compel innovation. Drastic limits, such as are likely to come in the next budget cycle, can compel a complete rethinking and overhaul of the way government works. For years, we've been reading, and writing, articles quoting business process experts who urge readers to not just add a new technology for efficiency, but to re-engineer the business processes to make full use of it.

This new era we're entering is one in which that wisdom will become urgent. No longer will it be optional to fundamentally reconsider standard modes of operation, it will be essential. The end result will no doubt be a government that does less, spends less, provides less than it has in the recent past. But it might also be a government that does what it does more elegantly, efficiently and wisely, if agency leaders take seriously the reality of the time and approach it with eager creativity rather than grudging compliance.

Beauty is not the aim of government. But if agencies put their minds to it, and create innovative ways to operate in an era of greatly limited resources, that would have a sort of aesthetic pleasantness of its own.

Posted on Oct 28, 2011 at 12:18 PM

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Reader comments

Thu, Nov 3, 2011 JC

It won't be budget innovation it will be budget manipulation!

Thu, Nov 3, 2011 Paul Washington DC

Ever since the 1980's, all I've ever heard is we must do more with less. So now, I guess we can do anything with nothing! I am always amazed how we can cut programs that actually do some good for this country and its people, but we can build a bridge to nowhere, spend billions in Afghanistan and Iraq, help the poor in other countries, but we can't help our own poor. I don't mean give them moeny, but give them the opportunity to earn a living and learn to respect themselves and others.

Thu, Nov 3, 2011

Need to cut all this programs about rehab for inmates and people out on probation. Millions of doallars spent and no real reuslt to say that it is working. Help them in the schools not after they get in trouble. When will we learn to help before not after the fact. The ones that want to change when they get caught will make the effort on there on to change. There are already churches and other agencies that give them help. We are holding this people hands like they are kids so they will continue wanting us to give them a hand. Just like they the saying says, cut the string or then will never grow up.

Mon, Oct 31, 2011

No one is talking about cutting bureaucracy!

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