Doing less with less, and being happy about it

My husband is in the Air Force. Meanwhile, in the past nine years (since getting my Masters), I have held a non-grant funded position. Not just grant-funded, but all federal monies (or, in one case, federal funneled through the state). So you could say I have a vested interest in big government. But I am also a tax-payer. And perhaps inordinately enamored with effectiveness and win-win situations.  It turns out, then, that I have a biding interest in big-enough government. As should we all.

What constitutes big enough is a fascinating question, but one unwieldy for a humble blog post. Even if I had a thorough, thoughtful, evidence-based answer, I have no expectation that the appropriate changes would be subsequently made. But I do what I can, which is this: think about the appropriateness of the size of the slice of government I do have a say over.

The Pareto Principle tells us that about 20% of our efforts will yield about 80% of our results. It probably applies to this blog: ~ 20% of the posts get 80% of the traffic. It applies even more drastically to the foods we eat: about 20 of the 287,000 flowering plants in the world account for 80% of the calories consumed by humans. It certainly applies to programs and problems.  Additionally, the next 20% of our efforts will give us the next 80% of our results. To wit, 36% of our efforts (more or less) give us 96% of our results.

And yet, we spend ~ 63% of our time, money, and other resources, on that piddling 4%. Of course, sometimes that 4% is crucial, and should not be ignored. (For instance, we should probably not be satisfied if  4% of terrorist plots succeeded or if 4% of commercial airplane mechanical issues led to crashes). But in many, many instances, that 4% is as trivial as it sounds and can be safely relegated to a low-priority “if time and money allow it” status. Unfortunately, most people have no idea what work functions or programs provide bang for the buck and which fizzle.

So what do you do? Measure, measure, measure. (But measure the right thing, and no more than is necessary. Otherwise, that becomes part of government bloat, as well). Off the top of my head, a few trivial examples:

  • Before your organization puts up billboards, figure out what it is you hope the billboards will achieve. Name recognition? Usage of a hotline number? What? Get a baseline for the before. A couple of months down the road, get a count for the after. No change? Stop making the billboard companies rich; spend the money elsewhere. (A similar phenomenon happens with brochures).
  • In designing a website, use google keywords ( to see what kind of information people are actually searching for. Also, use a phone log to find out what kinds of phone calls you get, and from what kinds of people. (i.e., if people who are calling don’t have access to the internet, then you can’t expect web content to affect call volume). At any rate, make sure to include relevant (yes, actually evidence-based) information on your website.
  • If 80% of the seat-belt law violators are rural passenger truck drivers, don’t “widecast” your public service announcement.  Or, heck, think of a more compelling intervention than a PSA.
  • If you are starting a new project, don’t make it more daunting than it has to be. Focus on what you think that 20% thinks really counts.  Put that most important 20% in place, and you will be 80% of the way to the finish line.  I have had the good fortune of being able to do this more than once — as well as the more typical and daunting experience of starting a new project without prioritizing.

Start looking around. Look at your budget, time spent, personnel, outcomes. Be brave enough to wonder what effect things are having, and to be willing to eschew the things that don’t work. Ask that most heretical of questions: Why are we doing this? It can mean ignoring what others tell you you should do (out of convention’s sake), but at the end of the day (or the year), the results are worth it.

Estela Kennen, MA

Doctoral Student,

Valdosta State University


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