November 18, 2009Ten years ago this month, federal technology managers were logging extra hours and getting their final plans in place for overcoming the looming Y2K computer challenge. If you recall the hullabaloo, computer experts worried that six-digit date codes -- 11-01-99, for example -- would cause computer systems to go haywire when the date turned to 01-01-00. In November 1999, agency information technology chiefs developed patches to deal with the problem, including rejiggering the code to eight digits, with four digits for the year.
At the end of the following month, IT managers spent their New Year's Eve in the office, just to make sure nothing bad happened. From the Defense Department to the General Services Administration, from Social Security offices to the White House, the managers saw midnight, Jan. 1, 2000, come and go without a hitch. They had spent the previous four years and more than $8 billion to make sure nothing happened. And nothing happened.
Much of what government does can be measured by a similar standard. Nothing happened? Mission accomplished. Preventing terrorist attacks or foreign invasion, preserving protected park land and avoiding airline accidents are among the government goals that share the absence of a result as the hoped-for result.
Of course, none of those goals is easily accomplished. Each takes a great deal of labor, technical expertise, planning and execution. They're the kinds of goals that keep federal managers up at night, because even with strong leadership, failure always is a possibility. Enemies with evil intentions lurk around many corners, and accidents ignore zero-tolerance policies. Even one failure can be catastrophic.
When federal IT managers beat the Y2K problem, the country was on an upswing. The economy was good and the federal budget was in surplus. Even leading up to the end of 1999, most of the public was nonplussed about the potential consequences of the computer bug. After nothing happened, government IT bosses patted themselves on the back, but no one else did.
Now, with a battered economy and federal budget deficits and rising debt as far as the eye can see, the public is increasingly skeptical about government spending. People don't see in their own lives benefits from what government does. Seeing nothing happening isn't a good thing in this instance.
Such skepticism is likely to increase as the federal debt rises and more of the government's budget is consumed by entitlement spending and on interest payments on the debt. During the next decade, money for the rest of government will be squeezed, and the public will ask more often what it is getting for the funds Uncle Sam spends.
That means federal managers will spend more time explaining the results they're getting. With less money to go around in the government's discretionary accounts, there will be more competition among federal programs. Lawmakers and budget bean counters will demand more information about goals and results to determine how the smaller pie gets divvied up. Decision-makers will have to remember that in the government, sometimes the best result is no activity at all.
Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.
November 18, 2009