Friday, September 3, 2010

Budgetary Darwinism

I’ve heard a number of people refer to current economic disaster as a tsunami or “perfect storm” but, as events continue to unfold and the upcoming state and federal budget cycles loom large, it’s clearly time to update the disaster metaphor. What we are about to experience in government is closer to a massive asteroid strike, an Extinction Level Event that will cull those programs that are unable to quickly adapt to a radically new paradigm. Given the fact that a hallmark of government programs has never been the ability to rapidly adapt to changing situations, the challenge facing those of us with the responsibility for providing public services is both immediate and immense.

Many of our programs have become comfortable with slow adaptive processes, responding to budgetary ebbs and flows by corresponding adjustments to the scale of activity. When funding is adequate and changes are incremental, programs evolve slowly, rarely challenging fundamental suppositions about what, in fact, is actually needed and how it is best provided. When need exceeds funding, waiting lists result. Many program administrators bemoan the inadequacy of services but are perfectly willing to place the responsibility solely on the funding bodies that won’t provide the resources to allow the current delivery models to be scaled to meet the increasing needs of our citizens.

However, like an asteroid approaching the Earth at speed, impact has become inevitable. Disaster movies aside, there are no nuclear solutions to return things to the way they used to be. Large and ongoing shortages of financial resources will trigger a kind of budgetary Darwinism that will relegate some programs to the scrap heap of history. Only those that can adapt effectively to a radically new environment will survive. Like the dinosaurs, those slow but majestic programs that have relied upon a history of dominance and political cachet to provide the resources to support their ponderous frames will quietly vanish from the scene. To survive in this new milieu, we must adapt, take risks, be entrepreneurial, and as my Director repeatedly reminds me, “Meet our customers where they are at.”


  1. "...adapt, take risks, be our customers where they are at." **high-five** Time for a new breed of program administrators. Billion dollar question-- How can we influence political and administrative change that leads to more effective recruitment and retention of innovative, socially responsible public program managers?

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