26 February 2009

Why, part two; and some thoughts on pork

For some reason, I've been itching to revise the diagram I used a couple of years ago to illustrate the urgent organizational importance of asking "why." I suggested then that if organizations didn't remember to keep that question central, they'd get fatally diverted over the "how" and "what" questions, the favorite terms of the eternal struggle between technocrats and spiritualizers.

One of the big flaws in my original diagram was that, although those arguments could prove to be tangents flying off the path, even asking "why" was no guarantee against decay and fragmentation--it just might put off the inevitable for a while.

In my new diagram, the spiritualizers and the technocrats manage to stay within the organization, accompanying it on its path through the cycle, at least until fragmentation starts to occur. (There's no particular symbolism for the colors I chose in either diagram, except that green stands for "fertile.")

The divided circles stand for the conflicts that grow more and more frequent along the path of decay. Conversely, the green hearts symbolizing the question "why" have the capacity to anchor or retard the decay. In fact, if the organization remains within the founding inspiration, there is no need to embark on the cycle at all. But those hearts grow smaller and more scarce as decay progresses.

Basically, I still agree with most of what I said in that earlier post. Someday, when I've mastered better drawing software, I'll make another attempt at this diagram!

I was reading Robert Pear's article, "House passes spending bill, and critics are quick to point out pork," in the New York Times. For some reason, I found the actual porkchops sampled in the article particularly interesting:
  • $1.8 million to conduct research in Iowa on “swine odor and manure management”
  • $173,000 for research on asparagus production in Washington State
  • $206,000 for wool research in Montana, Texas and Wyoming
  • $209,000 for efforts to improve blueberry production in Georgia
  • $208,000 to control a weed known as cogongrass in Mississippi
  • $1.2 million to control cormorants in Michigan, Mississippi, New York and Vermont
  • $1 million to control Mormon crickets in Utah
  • $162,000 to control rodents in Hawaii
  • presidential library allocations: Franklin D. Roosevelt ($17.5 million), John F. Kennedy ($22 million) and Lyndon B. Johnson ($2 million).
It suddenly hit me: these actually sound like reasonable approximations of what would in the nonprofit world be called not "pork" but "grants." To me, that puts a very different light on these expenditures, and on Congress's role in approving or not approving them.

A grant application normally has to show the proposed benefits of the expenditure, the competence of the organization requesting the money, and the proposed method of evaluating success. Federal grants, such as the ones I've dealt with from American Schools and Hospitals Abroad (for the Ramallah Friends Schools), only go to organizations with financial safeguards and adequate auditing procedures.

So instead of simply being constituency-pandering largesse, evidence of congressional corruption, and fodder for sanctimonious speeches, these piggy projects may actually have some merit. But how do we know? The issue isn't necessarily the value of the projects--who knows what lonely scientists have waited for the day when their expertise in swine urine is finally given proper recognition. (I'm not kidding, either--it's a serious problem.) The issue is whether the 535 members of Congress are the competent body to ratify these expenditures.

Wouldn't it be better to end ANY grant-like activity on the part of the Congress, worthy or unworthy, and budget a proportional amount of money for each congressional district and each state, to be allocated through the kind of review process that grants normally must follow? U.S. embassies and USAID offices overseas have grant funds at their disposal to assist worthy projects; why can't members of Congress have access to similar funds for qualified and perhaps quirky projects within their fields of vision? Assuming reasonable controls and audits are in place, how could this money go wrong, no matter how unusual the projects, how laughable they might sound to someone whose local water supply doesn't depend on solving those swine waste problems?

In the meantime, all these projects are matters of public record. Let's find out which ones are going to do actual valuable work before dismissing them all as wasteful. After all, the Chicago planetarium's expensive "overhead projector" that McCain dismissed so summarily at the presidential debates a few months ago actually turned out to be quite a different story when the details came out.

A few more links: Helena Cobban visits Ramallah. ~~ Spiritually speaking, women are stronger than men. ~~ Thinking ahead to October 2009--who's tempted by this gathering? ~~ In The Atlantic, Richard Florida considers "how the crash will reshape America." Teasers: "Metabolism and talent-clustering are important to the fortunes of U.S. city-regions in good times, but they’re even more so when times get tough." "If there is one constant in the history of capitalist development, it is the ever-more-intensive use of space. Today, we need to begin making smarter use of both our urban spaces and the suburban rings that surround them—packing in more people, more affordably, while at the same time improving their quality of life." ~~ George Fox University will host Victor Nakah, a Presbyterian pastor and president of Theological College of Zimbabwe, for its annual John Woolman Peacemaking Forum March 9-10. ~~ "Experiencing the depths of Jesus Christ"--an exchange on aspiration vs reality, or as Mike Morrell puts it, "truth in labeling."

Erja Lyytinen with yet another cover of the classic "It Hurts Me Too." I'll be looking for more from her.


Bill Samuel said...

Regarding Congressional pork - a major problem with the earmarks is that they do not go through a careful procedure of examination on the merits using a set of considered criteria. Rather, they are chosen based solely on political muscle.

Many of them do seem like worthwhile projects. But where should they stand on the priority list, and are they legitimate priorities for Federal spending vs. using resources from elsewhere, including the private sector that may benefit?

I don't think legislative bodies are good grant-making agencies, certainly at the Federal level. One needs people with experience related to the type of project to evaluate proposals carefully. Executive agencies don't always do this well, but they certainly have the potential to organize themselves to do a decent job of it.

Johan Maurer said...

Bill: all good questions. In general, I think we should remember Bob Gill's dictum that "the problem is the problem"--too often our "solutions" are aimed at some anxiety, side issue, or diversion other than facing the main problem: discerning and funding worthwhile projects.