Quiet Worries

I spent years working in a non-profit that was mostly funded by government agencies – both within the US and across the world. So I understand the systems, the bureaucracy, the pain that comes with it and the problems that I feel coming. I’ve heard some of the pain in the hearings for new cabinet members. One that sends chills down my spine is the wonders of Zero Base Budgeting. People speak these words and call for accountability as if we haven’t been always striving for that. Waste, fraud and abuse – the watchwords of the Republicans. If they can just solve that all of the problems of the world will be solved. Suddenly, the deficit will disappear, the world will be wonderful and all will be well. There isn’t a problem in the world that the Republican’s don’t think can be solved by waste, fraud and abuse, oh and disappearing regulations – that is another panacea.

When the country was in the height of the Great Recession and we had things like the Recovery Act there was shoveling out of billions of dollars at a time with not a lot of thought or accounting. It saved the economy. But then the Republican’s in congress demanded that things be changed and so in the second round that were for much, much, much smaller “shovel ready” projects the accounting requirements were insane. They made some mistakes with the billions that went to huge corporations/financial entitites so there was an overcorrection to make it almost impossible to use the money.

The same thing happened with Sandy – the Republican’s piled on the restrictions on how you could spend the money and who could get the money and the reporting on that funding was insane. Between my group, our funding agency, and the external group we needed to engage to get the funding we spent a fair amount of the dollars that we were trying to receive the funding just to get the funding for what was crucial projects that had to be completed. It was always a bit complicated to get funding and I’m fine with accountability but it’s been getting worse over the years.

So, yes, regulations are making it harder but the regulations that are making it harder are the regulations that require more accountability. When you hear how hard purchasing/procurement is in the government I won’t argue with you. Who makes it harder – congress – primarily the Republicans. Over the years I’ve been through just about every possible budget exercise. Zero base budgeting, been there, done that… sounds like I may miss the repeat.

When I started out we were able to get funding from the Navy, Air Force, Army (for a bit), Canada, NESDIS, FEMA – all through one cooperative agreement. It was easy, it was flexible – all of our partners worked together to meet training needs for all of their agencies as well as forecasters around the United States and around the world. We had other agreements as well but we worked to make sure that everyone abided by the spirit of the cooperative agreement. We all worked toward one cause.

Over the years, things got harder, we had more accountability – we had to meet contractual terms, just because that was how we could get the money. We worked to maintain the cooperation but it wasn’t as easy. In the past we used all of the money we received to meet a series of goals defined by all of our sponsors. We were able to hurry up here, change a project there, make an emergency change over here and we didn’t have to go through contractual changes for any of those changes. When I left COMET, we had individual contracts, or cooperative agreements, or grants, or contribution agreements, or purchase orders for all of our projects. We were always coming up with a new way to do things to get funding for projects. We were not as cooperative and we were struggling.

In the beginning, we had “open the door” funding that the agencies all agreed to provide as a base of operations and then they were able to add projects on top of that funding. With greater accountability it got harder and harder to justify those “Open the door” funds and so we had to find a way to fund our program and every day got harder and we spent more and more of our dollars on justifying our dollars. We had miles of metrics about the success of the program but the justifications just got harder and we had to start writing in review plans into individual projects. With our old base budgeting we had been able to actually commission real summative evaluations of our program but funding for projects like that was no longer available. Instead we were cobbling together evaluations that met the needs of an individual project requirements but weren’t able to answer the larger questions of effectiveness that we used to be able to get at. It was a loss to all.

So as I hear all of this talk of zero base budgeting… of waste, fraud, and abuse…. of greater accountability…. and I think here we go again

When talking about cutting regulations I somehow doubt that any of the issues I described above are on the chopping block. I expect those new regulations will be more and more accountability and the ones that get cut will be the ones about clean air and rivers. It’s not the way to run a country, a government, or an agency.



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