Friday, November 21, 2014

Objectives and Accountability

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”  Everyone should recognize those as the words of John Kennedy.  When he made this declaration, it was, and still is, uncharacteristic of a governmental action.  It had a specific objective, to get a man safely to the moon and back.  It had a clear timeframe, by the end of the 1960s.  Everyone in the world would know if the US achieved its objective and would hold us accountable.  Such a commitment requires the people involved to develop a project plan with steps and milestones to be achieved by certain points along the way.  If these milestones are not achieved, an investigation of the causes for delay or failure leads to adjustments or mid-course corrections.

Now I look at other government programs and private charities and wish for some movement in this direction.  Of course, I alone wishing is not going to make it happen, but with a nation full of critical thinkers, the pressure would be on to produce and publicize results and not rely on the feel-good messages that are intended to hook us and separate us from our votes or our dollars in pursuit of a noble, but vague cause.

The War on Poverty did not meet the same criteria.  It had an objective stated clearly by Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union address:  “"Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it."  Missing was a timeframe, so today we are still fighting.  No milestones have been set and mid-course corrections are ad hoc, moving us no closer to the objective.  Each one looks like a caring effort, so they are accepted as the right thing to do, but they don’t have objectives or timeframes of their own, so no measurement or critique follows.

This graph below shows that from implementation in 1967 to 2009, little progress has been made – the comparable 2013 census number was 14.5%.  not setting a timeframe leaves things wide open.

 A key program of the War on Poverty was Food Stamps, now renamed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.  Though “supplemental” is part of the name, we still hear many politicians and reporters complaining that you can’t feed a family on the amounts provided.  The expectation, the objective seems unclear or it has changed in some people’s minds.  No wonder there is confusion.

Many charities have a similar issue.  The recommended way to judge them is by how much they pass along compared to how much they spend on salaries, advertising and other administration.  What about results?  Some charities are very clear about where the money goes, how many people they feed, how many trees they plant, etc.  On the other hand, if you give money to a charity to find a cure for a disease, do you know where the money goes?  What research is being supported?  How does that research relate to curing the disease?  When we hear on the news that a new breakthrough has been achieved toward the cure of a disease, they never tell us where the money came from to support the research.  How much coordination is there between research organizations vs. how much competition?  Is the competition a good thing, motivating scientists to strive harder, or is it counterproductive motivating them to hide partial findings?  It is surprising how much we don’t know once we have finished the walk and handed in the pledge cards.  It’s also surprising how few people are even curious about it.

Others promise to help veterans or to eliminate domestic violence, but the details are missing.  What veterans?  Help with what?  What are the plans for beneficial domestic violence interventions?  They can’t be held accountable with no measurable objectives.  When no one really knows how much progress is made with the donated funds, does it really matter what percent is used for administration?

Critical thinking makes us curious to get the facts, keeps us asking the next question instead of being swept away by the good feelings and virtuous intentions of the politicians and fundraisers.  More questioning holds them accountable, which results in better programs and more successes.  

1 comment:

  1. Jim:
    Government intervention in things like "eliminating poverty" is further complicated by the change of politicians over time. A politician or political party may start a program, but that program may not have the political support needed by later politicians and generations of taxpayers. Populations may change drastically and outgrow the support mechanism that was originally designed.

    Thanks for these insights. With our political system of "compromising" to get half of what we want or need, it seems many programs will be doomed if they are not specific enough with their goals and funding.


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