Making Smart Cuts: Lessons from the 1990s Budget Front
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Making Smart Cuts: Lessons from the 1990s Budget Front

September 27, 2011

Budget cuts are here. The cuts that are emerging from the stormy deficit debates that raged in Washington for months in 2011, in an attempt to set the nation back on a path to fiscal health, are sure to affect federal agencies and the people they serve and employ for years to come. Leaders will have to figure out how to continue to provide services and sustain operations in an era of major budget cuts. Billions of dollars in cuts to programs have already been agreed to, ranging from block grants for housing rehabilitation to state-level law enforcement assistance to Department of Veterans Affairs information technology contracts and construction projects.

Additional cuts—some across the board, some surgical, some potentially deep and indiscriminate—will affect virtually every agency. But agency leaders do not have to start from square one to figure out what to do. Many former top federal officials had to confront deep cuts to their budgets, most notably during the 1990s, when aggressive deficit-reduction efforts and the post-Cold War peace dividend combined to drive cuts that were historic at the time. Those officials offer a wealth of experience when it comes to budget cutting, with lessons regarding the various types of strategies they employed and what happened as a result.

The Partnership for Public Service, with Booz Allen Hamilton, interviewed more than 30 current and former senior federal officials and government experts, on how federal agencies responded to past budget cuts. Their insights and experiences, presented here, are useful for leaders now facing similar challenges, and can assist agencies and members of Congress develop and implement effective strategies as they navigate the difficult path ahead.

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