The Eye of The Storm
NASA enjoys the stablest budget in the Federal government. Why then its continual state of disarray?
To explore this question, I’ll start with a refresh and update of “Ask and You Shan’t Receive”, where I riffed a NYT “porcupine graphic” to illustrate the differences between Presidential budget requests, and actual Congressional appropriations, for the NASA budget. I’ve added in some earlier budget years’ worth of data, and turned the crank for DoD as well.
First, an eye-opener from the defense data. I’ve previously illustrated the magnitude of long term defense cyclicals, which are fairly large in actual, appropriated amounts. Even more impressive (disturbing?) is the disconnect between administration / defense department long range (5-year) planning, and the actual spending amounts:
After 2003, part of the disconnect is attributable towards appropriating the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan outside the baseline DoD budget request, year to year. However, even prior to that, it was not uncommon for the out-years of defense plans to be hundreds of billions of dollars out of bed with the eventual, actual appropriations. That’s a lot of plans that never made it to fruition (yet somehow, the nation’s defense capability remained and remains intact and operational). To call the defense planning and budgeting environment “volatile” would be an understatement of the highest order.
An update to the equivalent NASA data shows a much more “tempered” situation:
With the exception of the 1990’s (begun with ambitious requests for Space Station Freedom and the Space Exploration Initiative; ended with aggressive plans for downsizing of NASA), there have been only comparatively minor differences between administration out-year planning and congressional appropriation. This has certainly been the case through the 2000’s.
To drive home the point further, the same data are integrated over 3-year windows and overlaid for both DoD and NASA:
Further, NASA’s overall budget fluctuates significantly less than most other Federal agencies, year to year. Comparatively speaking, NASA’s funding is the stablest in the Federal government:
We thus have a situation where:
- NASA’s actual year-to-year budget is the stablest in the Federal government
- Administrations and congresses tend to agree on the right “size” of the Agency in any given year, far more so than DoD (and by implication of the variability above, likely more than other agencies as well)
- NASA’s programmatic portfolio is nonetheless continually in disarray, both in planning and execution
The last bullet is particularly confounding.
Over the decades various blue ribbon panels have repeatedly exhorted that “NASA is asked to do too much with too little”, however, this rationale is likely true of every Federal agency. The “finding” is both unsurprising (coming as it does from inside-the-bubble panels) and not particularly helpful; providing advocacy, not advice.
Others observe that since Challenger, NASA has found itself repeatedly trapped between severely divergent, and seemingly irreconcilable, ideological and political belief systems about the next steps in the development and exploration of space. Aligned with powerful legislative and industrial stakeholder interests, the shuttlecock of civil space bounces back and forth. Unfortunately, this again is true of most sectors of Federal government. It suffices as a description for the situation, but fails as an excuse.
Some of this disarray must come home to the Agency itself to roost. As an agency within the executive branch, it is NASA’s job to balance competing stakeholder interests, fluctuating budgets, midstream replanning, and future uncertainties. This job is neither unique, nor more difficult than in any other branch of the Federal government that engages in long term development (rather than services or operations) programs. Put simply, it goes with the turf.
What NASA needs first and foremost, I will argue, is neither new vision, nor the “right” 20-year plan, nor revolutionary innovation, nor bottoms-up reinvention.
Rather, it needs to continue making progress on a long term path towards disciplined management.
As a first step, the Agency desperately needs to re-establish the capability to formulate and implement coherent, integrated, and self-consistent budgets (briefly grasped during the early years of PPBE implementation, but lost more recently for a variety of reasons). The challenge here will be to restore discipline, while not succumbing to the lure of central planning, since…
… as a second step, the Agency must develop the ability to adjust these budgets rapidly, and flexibly, in response to the winds of change on both sides of the Mall. Currently, minor (a few percentage points) adjustments to NASA’s budget lead to crippling paralysis in the system. This is an inevitable outcome of attempting to manage detailed implementation outcomes at too high a level (a trend which continues unabated), and pursuing too many conflicting agendas simultaneously. Failures to delegate appropriate decisions to appropriate levels, or to manage by budget, are exacerbated by a field center culture which has evolved to treat the institution itself as an entitlement, rather than a tool.
At the end of the day, the budget data speak loud and clear: Relative to other Agencies, NASA is blown by a light breeze in the eye of the Federal budget storm, not Cat-5 winds at landfall. As an Agency it has enjoyed – and continues to enjoy – a level of budgetary stability almost unprecedented in the Federal government. The “complexity” of its situation is ultimately tempered by that simple reality; rationales for failing to quickly adapt to change are few. The budgetary “safe zone” has been ours to either use, or to abuse and lose. On our current vector, the risk of the latter seems extremely high.