Because It’s Not Enough Just To Believe You’re Helpful

Cutting defense spending is hard enough. But we also suffer from a “social services-industrial complex” that may be even harder to cut.

So asserted Daniel Stid, a partner at the nonprofit consultancy the Bridgespan Group, in a recent piece for the Washington Post.

The dirty little secret of the social sector is that once government money starts flowing, the nonprofits that have advocated for it and/or who are benefitting from it have a vested interest in keeping it going, even as evidence shows ‘weak or no positive effects,’” Stid wrote.

That, of course, is never a good thing. But it’s especially troubling at a time when budgets are so tight. “In a time of mounting austerity, the only practical way to direct more public funding to what works is to reallocate it from what doesn’t work,” Stid argued. “But this challenges the status quo and is thus politically much more fraught.

That nonprofits and other service institutions barrel on despite lacking evidence of effectiveness isn’t news. As we’ve talked aboutPeter Drucker felt that nonprofits, not just businesses, must learn to measure outcomes and abandon what’s not working.

Photo credit: Krissy Venosdale

But when government is involved, and the organization is large, that can be especially hard to do. “The public service agency is always in danger of frittering away its best people as well as a great deal of money on activities which no longer produce, no longer contribute, have proven to be incapable of producing, or are simply inappropriate,” Drucker noted in Toward the Next Economics.  “Unless results can be appraised objectively, there will be no results. There will only be activity, that is, costs.”

Because government programs, or government-sponsored programs, can be nearly impossible to kill, Drucker therefore advocated killing them in advance.

“Instead of starting with the assumption that any program, any agency, and any activity is likely to be eternal, we might start out with the opposite assumption: that each is short-lived and temporary,” Drucker proposed in the Age of Discontinuity.  “We might, from the beginning, assume that it will come to an end within five or 10 years unless specifically renewed. And we may discipline ourselves not to renew any program unless it has the results that it promised when first started.”

What do you think is the best way to get rid of federal spending on non-performing social services?