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The Government Shutdown Isn't Because of a Resource Problem

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It's been a while since I blogged but my partner, Jason Saul, and I were talking recently and after that conversation we just felt compelled to say something about this situation. So, here it is...

We're all frustrated by the government's failure to do its job. What's worse, it doesn't need to be like this! The shutdown is just the latest manifestation of a dysfunctional budget process on the brink of collapse. But despite popular conception, partisanship isn't the real problem. This country was founded on plurality and democratic debate. Partisanship is part of that process. What we're missing today is a constructive framework for resolving partisanship. This is the answer to the budgeting crisis, and more broadly, to getting political debate in America back on track.

Truly, despite the many legitimate differences that exist, there is still a way forward: it's to rethink our budget allocations based on outcomes not activities or outputs. Why do we think this? Consider the following...

Few Democrats or Republicans are arguing that the federal budget should be bigger. And rightly so! In 2013, federal spending was in excess of $3.5 trillion. After four years of trillion-dollar deficits the national debt is approaching nearly $17 trillion. The entire annual GDP of the U.S. is only $16 trillion. So most folks understand and agree that we should spend less money -- not more. We just need to get more "bang for the buck" for the money we spend.

To get a better ROI, federal and state governments need to allocate monies smarter. They need a more rational allocation of resources. One way to do that is to focus on outcomes. According to one state senate appropriations chair we interviewed: "the way we do budgeting is completely arbitrary: we literally take all the programs we funded the prior year, cut them by 10 percent, and then refund them again the next year." This is not an effective budgeting process. There are no choices being made. Can you imagine a family making their budget decisions this way? Of course not!

But while they can't seem to agree what programs to fund or at what level, most Republicans and Democrats do actually agree on what outcomes matter most. Both want to create more jobs, prevent terrorism, improve education, etc.

We're not trying to be overly simplistic here but we do truly believe that focusing on outcomes would help end this stalemate. It would also help us be more efficient. According to the GAO's latest research, eliminating "duplication, fragmentation and overlap" would save the federal budget $295 billion. And focusing on outcomes will help us agree true budget priorities. Currently, politicians and voters set "priorities" by issue and the latest Pew research shows that almost every issue is a priority. Prioritizing everything means we fail to make tradeoffs, which is what budgeting needs to be about. New polls, such as the latest one by the Center for Innovation and Public Value asked voters to allocate $100 by outcomes. And surprise surprise, voters were able to make clear trade-offs. This resulted in a much clearer mandate for politicians and showed a surprising amount of alignment across both sides of the aisle. With this much common ground, we might just finally be able to change the political discourse to the positive because it's starting with what Republicans and Democrats agree on.

In sum, we need to find a "third way." A focus on outcomes rather than activities or outputs could be it. We can't spend more and we can't stop helping and protecting people. But by prioritizing outcomes we can shift from a budget fight to a constructive debate about investments and returns, rather than programs and spending.