Doing Less with Less: A Tale of Sequestration
I thought we were better than this.
I live in two very different worlds and my opinions are swayed by both. In one, the startup world, we believe that we get out what we put in. We believe that it is mostly a meritocracy (save for the old boys clubs). You will be washed out if you slack. We live for growth and speak in iterations.
In the second world, of steal and arms and bullet-background-papers, the mindset is different. Career paths are set – sure you can march slightly faster than the other guy, but not by too much. Work slightly less hard and you’ll get the same pension and medical benefits. Work significantly harder and the chances are that you will not get significantly more. Here we live for multiple concurrent government pensions and a way to work the absolute fewest hours for maximum pay.
These worlds are usually at odds, and occasionally difficult to reconcile. The startup/private world makes sense but, in comparison, lacks the strict formal system whose context makes the career military world make sense.
The case where official guidance is to do “less with less” – that is, no attempt to increase efficiency – is unacceptable, regardless of political pragmatism.
To set the stage; months ago we could not agree on how to spend the money we had, and the money we had not. Being responsible big boys, we told ourselves that we’d lock ourselves in this very room until we licked it. But we had places to go. And things to do. So we said, fine. We can leave. But we all must wear this ankle bracelet. If we do not return in time, the bracelet will cause a limp. Not to worry, we told ourselves, it will just be a minor limp. The truth is, this is novel and we are neophytes, who knows how lame we will be.
Eventually, we forgot about the bracelet. It became unnoticeable, a chipped tooth your tongue became bored with.
Instead of returning to that very same room when the time elapsed, we nervously phoned each other about that bracelet. If it might be something bad, why did we agree to this lunacy? Silence on the line.
A vague threat is no threat at all, but we still fantasized about a mini ankle explosion. Or perhaps seeping white gas. When the time came, neither effect accompanied it, with the exception of the calls. Did you feel anything? No? Hmm. OK.
So the bracelet company returned to consider the lack of effects. They queried the effects department and were shocked with the answer. The effects department queried the sub-departments and reported back. Across the board effects were muted. The departments, apparently, are so comfortable that they can handle the prescribed pain with ease. Sure, a few desks were relocated away from the windows but no external effects would be transmitted. In fact, department heads were beaming with pride at how well they handled the pain.
The effects department fluttered with worry. They’d be out of a job if they could not affect effects so they hastily issued an all-department edict. Do not do your best, they proclaimed, do your worst. Make it hurt. Make it visible. Let there be lines!
The department heads confusedly saluted and made it happen. Processes were convoluted and productivity artificially contracted. Lines grew.
Through it all, I courageously thought we were better than theatrically faking injury like a football (soccer) star. I was somewhat shocked when the TSA ordered artificially longer lines. Compulsive and aggressive inefficiency is a clear case of (Fraud,) Waste (& Abuse). But, whatever, the TSA was always the epitome of inefficiency.
And then the military came whispering loudly. The effects are terrible, the commanders said, but we can manage the mission without interruption. Aghast, the generals ordered: No, do “less with less” (a direct quote). Make it painful. At the end of a day’s service, your troops will need to complain to their families. Complaints will grow and Horton will hear a Who from the growing din. Horton will return to that very room to remove the bracelet. After all, if we can do the same with less, then less will become the new norm, the generals said.
With the stage in complete focus I retracted and considered. Did these orders reach me directly from an Air Force general? Specifically, society is not publicly outraged yet, so you and I need to stoke it. It’s shocking to consider that our revered core values – those I memorized 16 years ago – were also sequestered and curtailed.
If you know me, you probably debated me on this topic and I thank you for it. The common objection is that the current federal worker efficiency is the status quo, regardless of how inefficient or efficient it is. Granted, but so what? Their potential efficiency (all else equal and barring long-term effects) is what’s important, and, specifically, how to reach that potential. Artificially handicapping efficiency for any reason, especially for political arm-bending, is an absurdity somewhat acceptable to society only by it’s extreme degree of absurdity.
Thanks to Daniel Horton and Jason Satran for commenting on early versions of this rant.