The U.S. has six large programs — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers, unemployment insurance and the earned-income tax credit — spread across four Cabinet departments and the Internal Revenue Service.
Unfortunately, this is not an accident. There is a tendency in all organizations to focus on activities rather than results. Every program represents an activity. Managers of an activity seek to perpetuate and expand their domains.
Activities are easy to measure. The impact on results is difficult to quantify. Think tanks report on how many op-eds their scholars publish. How many think tanks report on their impact on results?
Corporations are often the victims of activity-centered thinking. Activities acquire a momentum of their own. One thing that management consultants do is challenge the mindset and power of departmental managers who focus on activities rather than results.
Fortunately, corporations face market constraints and competition. These forces serve to weed out mindless activities and re-focus attention on results. In government, those checks are missing. Thus, it is almost inevitable that government programs will be perpetuated without regard to results. That is the natural behavior in organizations, and only if there are countervailing forces will that natural behavior be overcome.