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March 9, 2011


Ask And You Shan’t Receive

by brainoids

Stumbling across this cool infographic from the New York Times, I was inspired to apply some of the same design principles to historical NASA budget data I’ve been keeping.

Long term budget planning is an interesting Federal dynamic.  The battle between administration priorities and legislative branch priorities is starkly evident when executive branch hopes and dreams (or sometimes, nightmares) in five year budget plans are compared with the actual funds appropriated by Congress each year.

5-Year administration NASA budget plans (grey) and actual appropriated funds (blue) (in FY11 dollars)

In the case of NASA, Congress has (over the last 15 years) been mostly a “restoring force”, keeping the NASA budget comparatively constant.   The variability in NASA’s budget is very small compared to that of other Federal agencies.

5-Year total budget request, and 5-year total actual appropriated funds

The other key information buried in the data is that “out-year” budget plans (those beyond the current year of appropriation and execution) actually mean very little.   This is something project and program managers are keenly aware of, especially in the defense and space industries, where initiatives (missions) span many years to develop and bring to completion.  While still a valuable tool in formulating the implementation of major programs, long term budget plans are as much a means of signaling broad intent from one side of the Mall to the other, as they are any real indication of future fiscal reality.   This goes as much for appropriated funds as requested funds:  consider the wide spread in the light blue lines above in any given year.

Let it not be said that steering Federal programs is easy…

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