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Charlotte Amalie
Thursday, August 11, 2022
HomeNewsArchivesGetting Through Hard Times: Part One

Getting Through Hard Times: Part One

Gov. deJongh’s budget message makes it crystal clear that it is going to be a very difficult year. The proposed cuts are deep, and there is no point in pretending that they will be painless.

What makes the Virgin Islands different from states and cities that have cut budgets in recent years is the outsized economic and social importance of government sector jobs in the territory.

This simple fact is what makes the situation more difficult than it is elsewhere, and, God knows, it has not been an easy time anywhere. Even with this difference, it is worth examining lessons learned from the experiences of others.

No mistakes
In good times, mistakes are generally not that costly. We can spend a little more and fix them. In bad times, they are very costly. That is why the cardinal rule in making unavoidable cuts is: no mistakes. And because avoiding mistakes is so important, process become critical. (No, please, come back. Don’t stop reading. I’ll try to make “process” interesting.)

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A basic question
At the front end of the process are a big question and a big assumption. The question is: Do we think this is a short-term (i.e., one- or two-year) problem or are we in for a long period of austerity or very slow growth?

My assumption is that the nation – and the territory – are in for a long, difficult and potentially dangerous slog. If you accept this assumption, it leads to thinking about basic restructuring rather than shorter-term fixes. This is a very big discussion.

The basic assumption: no good options
The basic assumption is that all of the choices that are available to the V.I. government are bad. This is not about finding the happy choice, although there are going to be people who say there is one, if you just use the magic potion. As the writer H. L. Mencken once said, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple … and wrong.”

Those who have been most successful in these situations are leaders who have understood that it is important to choose between bad and worse. Finding the “least worst” outcomes is the goal. Those who refuse to face this reality and who cloud the picture, “spreading confusion” to use a wonderful V.I. phrase, should be ignored. Or, if they cannot be ignored, they should be pushed aside.

A set of principles
If defining and accepting difficult realities is the “core” principle, there is a set of others that has produced success in similar situations. “Success” in this case defined as emerging from a period of cuts with the least possible damage. That set includes:

• The devil is in the details. Mess up the details and there are significant consequences. Ask any Human Resources director who has been through this experience and they will all confirm this fundamental truth.
• The clock is ticking. Whatever is hard today, is going to be harder and more costly tomorrow. This is why our natural tendency to want to put off difficult things has to be resisted in these situations.
• Make implicit understandings explicit. Even more than in “normal” times, clarity is a friend and ambiguity is the enemy that will come back to bite you. What does this mean? Who will do exactly what? What is our message?
• There has to be a core team. They must trust one another and, in communicating with workers and the community, they have to speak with a single voice. Communicating difficult changes is both a discipline and an art form. It is a critical discipline, and, in general, it gets screwed up in these situations.
• Within the team, conflict is both inevitable and essential. You want conflict because it is the way to get to the best possible solutions. There is a clear path: discussion and conflict →best decisions →trust; alignment and ownership of decisions→effective execution.

Finally, what lies ahead is going to be emotional. There is a lot at stake for a lot of people. Emotionalism clouds judgment and produces costly mistakes. As the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov once said, “Only during hard times, do people come to understand how difficult it is to master their thoughts and emotions.”

There are those who traffic in emotions. They tend to focus on people, blaming, and the past—rather than on problems, solutions and the future. Their influence is costly even in good times. In bad times, it can be disastrous. Like the spreaders of confusion and the snake oil salesmen, they need to either be ignored or pushed aside.

(This is the first in a series on the fiscal crisis.)

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