Activity Versus Productivity: The Need For Governmental Priorities

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During his campaign, President Obama repeatedly promised to streamline the federal government, reduce waste and make government more effective.

Yet it seems that everything this administration does violates basic management principles that have been firmly established over the past 75 years. Busy-ness masquerades as productivity improvement activities.

Take the seemingly simple matter of priorities. Governmental change leaders must realize that the crucial question is: "What comes first?" rather than "What should be done?" This, we are afraid, is why President Obama's stimulus and healthcare packages are duds.

Everyone agreed, in general, what should be done. Very few agreed as to what should be done first. The normal human reaction of less experienced executives is to evade the priority decisions by attempting to do a little bit of everything.

The "Let's do a little bit of everything" approach results in enormous staffs without concentrating enough effort in any one area to make things really happen.

An Example...and Its Lessons

Peter F. Drucker frequently cited the impressive example of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the ‘30s. Said Drucker:

"The bill establishing the TVA only passed Congress despite tremendous opposition because its backers promised a dozen different, if not incompatible, benefits to a dozen different and mutually antagonistic constituencies: cheap power, cheap fertilizer, flood control, irrigation, navigation, committed development and whatnot.

"TVA's first administrator, Arthur Morgan, a great engineer, then attempted to live up to these promises and to satisfy every one of his constituencies. The only result was an uncontrollably growing bureaucracy...uncontrollably growing expenditures...and a total lack of any performance.

"Indeed, the TVA in its early years resembles nothing as much as one of those 'messes,' which we now attack in Washington.

"Then President Roosevelt removed Morgan and put in a totally unknown, young Wisconsin utilities lawyer, David Lilienthal, who immediately—against all advice from all the 'pros'—announced his priority: power production.

"And within a year, the TVA produced results—and Lowenthal, by the way—met no opposition, but was universally acclaimed as a savior."

In more general terms, many feel the administration must make priority decisions with respect to what must be accomplished.

After they succeed, then other programs can be initiated and efforts expended on accomplishing clearly defined goals.

In Conclusion

The Obama administration should start prioritizing what it is they're going to do.

Indeed, intelligent discussions concerning priorities will probably generate less hostility than any debate over priorities could have engendered.