Austerity vs. Prosperity

Ok, I got distracted by the election and was so flabbergasted by what I was hearing in the media that I was too emotionally charged to be writing anything.  Now the election is over and we are back to square one, yes Obama has been re-elected but the status quo in the House of Representatives and the senate has not really changed the divisive political mood; not to mention long list of other threats menacing us, Greece and the rest of Europe have not resolved their debt problem and the US is heading for the fiscal cliff, let’s just hope this is not a remake of Thelma & Louise.

Consequently, there is a lot of talk about austerity in Europe at the moment, and in some cases it makes good sense but people tend to forget that austerity is by design a constricting measure for the economy. One of the things I have learned during my consulting career is that unintended consequences can sometimes undermine the very effort to fix a problem.  This is where “system dynamics” and causal loops diagram can be useful to explore and express the dynamics at play in a given situation. To help explain what happens with austerity, I have developed the following model. The model is quite rudimentary and as it was created in Insight Maker, it is available to anyone to expand on, improve or correct what is already there. (so if you have any input to making my model better, please update it yourself or let me know). You will notice that austerity has the potential to be a severe vicious cycle depending on how it is applied.

Quite frankly I don’t believe Greece will ever be able to repay it’s debt, especially not by cutting spending alone. The current depressive cycle the country is one is only exacerbating the problem. In fact just like in the US, the debt problem needs to be a balance approach of revenue generation (ie Tax reforms) and spending reforms. Let’s face it the tax system in Greece is a disaster, and this is nothing new. The Greek politicians have kick the tax reform “can” so far down the road that the “can” is falling apart in pieces and there is nothing left to kick.

But, whatever gets done on taxes, it will have to be attractive. Greece needs urgently to get its population back to work, so creating private sector jobs has to be a priority.

The other side of the coin is spending. You may have picked up that I just the term spending reform rather than spending cuts. That is because I believe there is a fundamental difference and that one is sustainable and the other isn’t.  Spending cuts equal less services or investment in the future, and as you have seen in the model they constrict the economy. Spending reforms reviewing what you spend money on and what you get in return.  There are some great success stories of how one man was able to transform the purchasing process within government, under President Clinton, there by savings 100’s millions $ in the process. My experience tells me there are still billions $ if not 100’s billions in inefficiencies within government processes, in six sigma we call this the hidden factory. In fact perhaps the best way to think about this is the illustration with the iceberg.

The estimated cost of poor quality, expressed as % of turnover

The estimated cost of poor quality, expressed as % of turnover

The sad part, and often overlooked, is that the majority of these inefficiencies are known or have even been documented. The organization, in our case government, is just not capable to foster the kind of organizational maturity that would allow such opportunities to be addressed. And although the government may be often ranked at the bottom of the scale when it come to “appeal”, there are only a few organizations, world wide, that have the necessary transparency and values to motivate their workforce to truly strive for perfection and continuous improvement. Look at it this way:  how many people do you know trust their boss and organization so much that he would be willing to tell his boos how o make his own job redundant; because he would know that was the best way to demonstrate his value & commitment to the organization?

Ok some of you may have some Japanese friends where something like this is more likely to take place, precisely because they have developed mature organization where the workforce feels stronger together than the sum of the individuals, creating a strong identity! Identity is one of the magic ingredients that separate “groups” from “teams”. But wait a minute we are talking about government here, not Google! Looking for saving opportunities in government processes should be like looking for eggs in a henhouse. There may not be an egg under each hen but you pretty certain you will find some eggs.

As I mentioned above the first step of sliming down government were initiated under Clinton, and a lot of services and processes have been out sourced. In fact the Bush administration conveniently rode that wave when the same trimming down effort and clarification of “core competences” was applied to the military and the military contractor industry was created, suspiciously creating huge profits for companies like Blackwater & Halliburton in the process.  This is also the message Obama is trying to tell the American people when he says that some things are best done together. He has put a canvas that has some broad strokes on it but the question remains whether the other politicians will be willing to shape the landscape and add the color. Nevertheless the road to sustainable prosperity would clearly be smoother with a reinvigorated workforce of loyal civil servants that pride themselves on their work and looks after the governments interest as if the were his own.  Seeding the seeds for continuous improvement in government could be a low cost endeavor with immense potential returns.

Zabok, HR – 14th November 2012

2 thoughts on “Austerity vs. Prosperity

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