Sequestration – An Inordinate Waste of Time

The sequestration rollercoaster continues to chug along. "So now it's time to buckle up." "Now that everyone has to implement sequestration, it is taking an inordinate amount of time, because they have to figure out what it (sequestration) is, because we've never really done it before. And a lot people who are in charge of it are losing 1 day a week on sequestration planning. The other 4 days a week they're trying to figure out how to accomplish their mission. It is a monumental loss of government productivity and further erodes what the government is supposed to be doing," said Don Kettl. Kettl is the Dean of the Public Policy School at the University of Maryland. Kettl sat down with Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program to talk about the ramifications of sequestration. "There are already people in the food inspection industry that are saying about the sequester, 'I don't care, the federal law requires them to inspect meat and we don't want to shut down our factories because the government can't provide the inspectors.' There is the potential for lawsuits out there, because the federal law promises a certain level of service and if the government can't deliver there will be legal challenges on that issue alone," said Kettl. Lack of Public Outcry "That's the slippery part of the story, the day after the sequester went into effect there was a lot out in the media with people saying, 'I went to the airports and nothing seemed to change, no big deal.' The reality is that this is something that is operating in slow motion," said Kettl.
  • Federal furloughs won't take effect until the beginning of April at the earliest. And only at that point will we being to see what the implications are for the winding down on the investment in federal manpower, grants or contracts.
  • In terms of understanding what's happing and holding people accountable for the decisions they make will be very difficult.
"This perception seeps into the public that there is enough waste in government, that you can easily cut 5-10% and still be able to keep the job going," said Kettl. Management's Two Part Dilemma
  1. "I'm in the education businesses and I deal with people who have decided they want to make the public service their career. They've invested not only their time but their money into that career. Time after time that that investment gets denigrated. After that happens it's a hard thing to re-motivate people," said Kettl.
  2. "People inside the government have the same problem of trying to get motivated but find their barriers in the way they're doing their jobs," said Kettl.
"We should have a wild and crazy national debate on what it is we want the government to do. We  really have an obligation that whatever government commits to do, it needs to do as well as it can be done. Unfortunately we aren't have the debate about what government ought to do, nor are we making it possible for feds to do their jobs well. So we've ended up in the worst possible circumstance," said Kettl. Brain Drain "It's the longer term cost of the inefficiencies that gets wired into government, we may have a brain drain with people that say i've had enough. Lots of people joined the federal service because they are committed to the ideals of their agency's mission and because they're working for security. So if you move the security and make it hard to perform the public interest function then it really diminishes the value a lot of people see in government jobs to begin with," said Kettl. Ripple Effect "So many feds don't actually deliver the services themselves, they work with lots of partners in the private sector, non-profits, state and local governments etc. who are actually on the front lines of service delivery so the more that you disrupt that chain and undermine the ability of a federal employee to do what they do, the more that you create all these disruptions. The problem in productivity for one federal employee could percolate out to dozens of other people or million s or even billions of dollars down the road," said Kettl. Uncharted Territory "What we've done before is the political theater of shutting down the government. This time we have pretty significant cuts across the board in all federal agencies rolled out over a slow period. We've never done that before. We are doing what everyone was said was so bad it would spark an agreement on cuts to avert something like the sequester," said Kettl. What Should Feds Do?
  1. Know that none of this will change or stabilize anytime soon.
  2. Managing a program in the era of fiscal constraint with lots of uncertainty is likely to be the new normal.
  3. Focus on the mission. You have to focus on what can be done.
"Pushing the political theater aside, the fact is all the government is committed to do, the agency's missions, the programs, those are all still in place. There is still a commitment we have made as a country to do things from air traffic control, to food inspections to scientific research, all those missions are still in place," said Kettl. Tracking the Sequester "If this was an episode of CSI, you would come upon the the scene of a crime 5 months from now with finger prints everywhere. It would take an additional six months to lift all the fingers prints and discover who is responsible," said Kettl. Cuts Need to Happen "Clearly we need to trim back on what the government is spending. That's the future inevitably. The hope is that we can move the clumsy across the board cuts into something much more targeted. Ultimately we have to get to the central question of entitlements because that's where the money is," said Kettl.

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