The Federal Agency’s Hierarchy of Needs: How “Higher-Level” Needs and Activities Can Help Secure “Lower-Level” Needs

The Phase One team has had another productive year helping the Forest Service streamline and automate their processes surrounding the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). We’ve helped our clients leverage data that is entered to comply with legal mandates into useful information for their public websites; we have given them tools to make their procedures more open and transparent by streamlining and automating the process to get NEPA information out the public web; and helped develop a tool (to be deployed in 2011) that will streamline the public comment ingress, analysis and response process. These are all great accomplishments for the Forest Service that have stemmed from a need to make NEPA compliance more cost effective and to reduce the administrative burden on the field, but have also had the unintended consequence of helping the agency to be more open and transparent. In this discussion we highlight how potential shifts in government budgetary climate could threaten these important, albeit secondary, outcomes and propose that thinking about agency priorities as a hierarchy could assist in the prioritization of constrained resources. While 2010 was a stand-out year for the Forest Service becoming more open, transparent, and efficient, the social, political, and budgetary landscape changed and there may be a need to account for this shift in 2011. This past year, America found itself plodding through another bleak economic year with unemployment hovering around 10%,  a widespread perception that the public debt is too large, and a (reportedly unfounded) perception that Federal employees are overpaid and need to do more with less resources. [1] Unsatisfied with the current economic situation, Americans went to the polls and elected a new Republican majority for the house who ran on getting Federal debt under control (among other things) by proposals to slash budgets and control spending.

By May 2010 there were already indications that the budgetary squeeze would be on for 2011 with a freeze on discretionary spending and an emphasis on measuring performance through dollars spent.[2] It appears that there is the possibility of even further belt tightening ahead in 2011. Some members in the House are calling for a return to 2008 spending without changing military or social security spending. If this were to be enacted, it would require a cut of one-fifth of the entire non-military, non-social security federal budget[3]. With budgets likely to at least stay at current levels for the near future, it’s important to consider how federal agencies can best prioritize their spending.

Personally, I love analogy and I love to liken government agency spending to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. To keep from boring your immensely if you don’t know who Maslow was, I’ll just tell you that Maslow was a famous developmental psychologist whose hierarchy stated that every person has base levels of certain “needs” and that individuals cannot move to higher-level needs without satisfying lower-level needs. Maslow’s (simplified) hierarchy of personal needs are as follows:

  1. Physiological – Air, food, water, sleep
  2. Safety – Security of body, of employment, of resources, of family, of health, of property
  3. Love/Belonging – Friendship, family, intimacy
  4. Esteem – Self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others
  5. Self-Actualization – Morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem-solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts.

While complex, one can see how each builds on the other toward self-actualization. This hierarchy concept also translates well to government agencies. I propose that a hierarchy of government agencies would resemble something like this:

  1. Resources – Money, personnel, space, well-defined tasks
  2. Safety – security of budget, of personnel, of space, of work, that no one else is duplicating effort
  3. Mandated and Mission Based Activities – Productive work toward goals that meet agency mission and meet legal mandates
  4. Pride – Ability to tout achievements to other government entities, ability to compare their work to others
  5. Novelty/Innovation/Collaboration – Creativity of solutions to issues, efforts to move beyond “paper-pushing,” data sharing between the public and other agencies.

What is different about this hierarchy than Maslow’s hierarchy is that one does not necessarily get stuck at a lower level if they cannot achieve one of the needs. When working with our clients we must recognize that just because budgets are not as secure as they used to be this doesn’t mean that all of the “higher-level” activities have to be sacrificed. Instead, we should focus on how the higher-level activities that help relieve the stress on the lower level needs. For example, efforts to increase transparency need not be sacrificed if it can be justified that the effort will save money, advance agency mission, and be a source of pride that can be touted on a national stage.

In this way, government agencies can be likened to manufacturers.[4] Manufacturers, like government agencies, have “lower-level” goals of efficient use of resources. At the same time, manufacturers could be said to have “higher-level” goals of being environmentally friendly. Historically, when faced with a choice of saving money versus polluting, manufacturers have been known to sacrifice the environment to save money. What’s come to pass in recent years is that manufacturers have realized that the “higher-level” goal of being environmentally friendly reinforces their “lower-level” goal of efficiency – polluting less IS more efficient. Government is often faced with the same dilemma and must break out of the “either-or” mindset, in favor of a strategic focus on higher-level goals to reinforce select lower level goals.

Too often, when there’s talk of budget cuts, agencies immediately tense up and start talks of “cuts” to meet budgetary constraints. Because efficiency is important, strategic, higher-level goals should not go by the wayside. Strategic, forward-thinking efforts that focus on “higher-level goals” have the effect of making overall government operations better in the long-term while providing much-valued security to the government’s, immediate, “lower-level needs.”


[1] http://www.govexec.com/dailyfed/0310/030910ts1.htm

[2] http://www.federaltimes.com/article/20100517/ACQUISITION03/5170301/1001

[3] http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/12/house-republicans-propose-20-percent-spending-cuts.php

[4] Disclaimer: This is a broad overgeneralization used to make a point. Not all manufacturers pollute or are faced with the choice of pollution vs. efficiency. Nor, do I have qualms with manufacturers.