Tag Archives: economic

16-Day Government Shutdown Affects Economy

By Holly Maher

On October 1, 2013 at 12:01 AM, the beginning of the 2014 fiscal year, the federal government shut down all non-essential operations when Congress could not pass a continuing resolution to allow spending at current levels. The government shutdown lasted 16 days and, in addition to other impacts, closed the National Parks system (see our blog about the park closures), furloughed 800,000 federal employees, had the potential to impact payment of veterans’ benefits and negatively impacted the economy, both directly and indirectly.

So what caused the government shutdown? If you watched any TV during that 16 day period, you could certainly hear any number of experts (on both sides) explaining who was to blame. As the Cause Mapping methodology is intended to do, this analysis of the government shutdown is not trying to identify the one person, the one group or the one reason to blame for the shutdown. Instead, we will identify all the causes required to produce this effect. This will allow us to identify many possible solutions for preventing it from happening again. We start by asking “why” questions and documenting the answers to visually lay out all the causes that contributed to the shutdown. The cause and effect relationships lay out from left to right.

In this example, the government shutdown occurred because a vote on a continuing resolution bill could not be passed by Congress because there was a line item added to the continuing resolution, defunding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that could not be agreed upon. A continuing resolution was required because the Constitution gives the power to spend money to Congress, and since they had not passed a Budget for fiscal year 2014, a continuing resolution was constitutionally required to continue operating the government after October 1. Defunding the ACA was added to the continuing resolution bill because the ACA was about to go into effect and because it can be added on a line item basis. Congress was unable to compromise to reach an agreement to pass the continuing resolution.

So why was Congress unable to reach an agreement? If the incentive to compromise was greater than the incentive to not compromise, they would have compromised. So why is the incentive to compromise ineffective? One of the reasons is because Congress’s pay is not affected when the government shuts down. Another reason is because there is significant incentive to maintain a position aligned with the party (either left or right). The desire to get re-elected (which is unlimited within Congress), the need for support in the primaries to get re-elected (based on the current primary system), and the need for campaign financing are all causes that support the incentive to maintain alignment with the party versus compromise.

Once all the causes of the government shutdown have been identified, possible solutions to prevent the shutdown from happening again can be brainstormed. One possible solution would be to legally require a continuing resolution to be a “clean” bill, with no additional line items. This would make it more likely in the future, when there are debates or discussions over current, hot button items, such as the ACA, that the result would not be a failure to pass the continuing resolution and therefore cause a government shutdown. Another possible solution would be to stop pay for Congress during the government shutdown. Other more global, systemic solutions might be to implement term limits in Congress or provide government campaign financing to reduce the dependency on party financial support.

To view the Outline and Cause Map, please click “Download PDF” above.

Utah Fights for National Parks

By ThinkReliability Staff

Beginning on October 1, 2013 with the failure to spending approval, the US government entered a partial shutdown including the complete closure of the National Parks, as specified in the National Park Service Contingency Plan.  While the government shutdown had far-reaching effects, both across industry and geographically, areas of Utah   have been hit particularly hard by the closure of multiple National Parks in the area. The shutdown finally ended on October 17 when the government reached a deal to reopen.

A large proportion of Utah businesses are dependent on revenue brought in from tourists visiting the multiple Federal lands in the state, which include National Parks, National Monuments and National Recreation Areas.  A total of five counties in Utah declared a state of emergency, with the counties saying they’re losing up to $300,000 a day.  San Juan County, the last to declare a state of emergency, went a step further and decided it would reopen the parks themselves using local personnel to provide necessary emergency response and facilities for park visitors.

On October 10, the state of Utah came to an agreement with the Department of the Interior to pay for the Park Service to reopen the park for up to 10 days at a cost of $166,572 a day.  (It is possible, though not automatic, that the state will be reimbursed for these costs after funding is restored.)  Luckily a “practical and temporary solution” (as described by the Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell) was found before county officials had to resort to what they described as “civil disobedience”.  (Trespassing in a National Park can result in a citation that could lead to fines or jail terms.)

This situation mirrors that frequently found on a smaller scale in all workplaces.  Concerned employees find themselves in circumstances that they believe are not in the best interest of their company or customers.  If support for change is not provided by management, these employees will develop work-around (like illegally reopening a National Park to allow tourists to enter).  Sometimes workarounds are actually a more effective way of completing work tasks, but they can also sometimes lead to unintended consequences that can be disastrous.

This is why the most effective work processes are developed with the experience and insight of employees at all levels.  Taking their concerns into account at the development of procedures and on an ongoing basis will reduce the use of potentially risky workarounds, and can increase the success of all an organization’s goals.

To view the Outline, Cause Map, and considered solutions, please click “Download PDF” above.  Or click here to read more.

Greece Economic Woes – Part 2

By ThinkReliability Staff

In our previous blog about Greece’s economic woes, we looked at some of the impacts the recent events have had on Greece and potentially the rest of the European Union (EU) and a timeline of the events that are part of the ongoing economic crisis.  However, we stopped short of an analysis of what contributed to these impacts.

The outline, which we filled out previously, discusses an event or incident with respect to impacts to the goals of a country (economy, company, etc.).  An analysis of the causes of these impacts can be made using a Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis.  To do so, begin with one impacted goal and ask “why” questions to complete the analysis.  For example, Greece’s financial goal is impacted because its debt rating is just above default.  Why? Because the ratings agencies were concerned with Greece’s ability to repay.  Why? Because their debt to revenue ratio is too high.

Whenever you encounter a situation where a ratio is too high – such as this case, where debt is too high compared to revenue – it means that the Cause Map will have two branches.  Each part of the ratio is a branch.  In this case, if debt to revenue is too high, it means that debt is too high and revenue is too low.  Each branch can be explored in turn.  There have been cases made that only one or the other branch is important, but what we’re looking for in a Cause Map is solutions that can help ameliorate the problem.   Due to the severity of the issue in Greece, solutions that reduce debt and solutions that increase revenue must both be implemented in order to attempt to repair the financial standing.

Greece’s government debt is high – caused by government spending on borrowed money when the euro was strong and interest rates were low.  There are many parts to government spending, which can make their own Cause Map.  Suffice to say, reducing government spending – by a lot – is necessary to reduce the debt to revenue ratio.  Unfortunately, severe reductions in government spending also mean reductions in government services, and government salaries.  As an example, government workers, which total 25% of the total workforce, are seeing their pay reduced 10%.  As you can imagine, this reduced spending has angered some Greeks, causing riots, which have killed Greek citizens.  In this case, the solution “reduced spending” also becomes a cause in another branch of the Cause Map.  It’s important to remember that not all solutions are free of consequences and that solutions themselves may contribute to the overall problems.

Greece’s revenue is insufficient to fuel their current spending levels.   Tax revenue is decreased by tax evasion, high unemployment, and a shrinking economy.  The Cause Map isn’t simple here either, because the shrinking economy contributes to the unemployment rate, and decreased spending can result in decreased revenue.  The worldwide economic woes are contributing to the shrinking economy, but also low levels of foreign investment, caused by what is considered a difficult place to do business due to political, legal, and cultural issues.  Last but not least, many governments in Greece’s situation would devalue their currency in order to regain an economic edge.  However, Greece uses the Euro – so devaluing currency isn’t an option.  There has been some talk of Greece dropping the Euro but a bailout by the other EU countries (itself an impact to the goals) appears to have shelved that discussion for now.

In addition to reduced tax revenue, Greece is having trouble borrowing money.  As their credit rating has fallen (it now has the lowest credit rating in the world), interest rates for loans are climbing, so it is possible that Greece will still fall into bankruptcy and loans will not be repaid. This is caused by the debt to revenue ratio, and adds a circular reference to our map.  This is why the economic issue has been described as a spiral – the causes feed into each other, making it difficult to climb out.

However, Greece has made admirable strides to attempt to reduce their debt and increase their revenue.  Only time will tell if that, and the bailout from the EU, will be enough.

Greece Economic Woes – Part 1

By ThinkReliability Staff

Greece is currently suffering from an economic crisis.  Leaders in Greece, the European Union, and the rest of the world are all anxiously watching as events unfold to attempt to minimize the impact of these issues.  An analysis of this issue can help these leaders minimize their own impacts, as well as provide appropriate aid to Greece.  However, performing an root cause analysis on an issue whose roots reach back years is not an easy task.

Normally a root cause analysis performed as a Cause Map begins with a problem outline.  However, sometimes an issue is so complicated that it’s difficult to begin there.  In these kinds of cases, beginning with the creation of a timeline may aid in the investigation.

What to include in the timeline is a frequently asked question.  When beginning a timeline, put in all the information you have.  It may make sense to go back later and create a less detailed timeline.  However, many events that don’t initially seem to add much to the timeline may later turn out to be important in the analysis.  In the case of Greece, I began the timeline with Greece’s entry into the European Union (EU).  While it wasn’t clear initially whether this contributed to the current issues being faced by Greece, it later became clear that the restrictions placed on EU-member countries did in fact contribute to the current issues.

Events in the timeline may turn out to be impacted goals.  For example, at various points in the timeline Greece’s credit rating has been downgraded.  The last downgrade occurred just before default by Moody’s.  Having a solid credit rating is an important goal – so a downgraded credit rating, especially one as low as Greece’s, is an impact to the financial goal of that country.

Once the timeline has begun (it’s not really complete until the issue is considered resolved, which in this case will take years), the next step would be to tackle the outline.  Writing the timeline will hopefully have provided some clarity to the issue.  For example, since Greece entered recession in 2009, we can choose 2009-2011 as a logical time to enter in the outline.  If more detail is desired, referring to the timeline is also appropriate.

The most commonly asked question about the outline is what to write in the “differences” row.  Differences are meant to capture things that may have been out of the ordinary, or potentially answer the question “why this country (or equipment or time) as opposed to some other country?”  Because Greece is a part of the European Union, which has consistent financial goals for its members, we can use some data points that show how Greece differs from other countries in the EU, or essentially answer the question “why is Greece having these issues instead of the other EU countries?”  In Greece, debt is estimated to be 150% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  This is much higher than for most other nations.  The public sector in Greece accounts for about 40% of the GDP, also higher than typical.  Greece has the second lowest Index of Economic Freedom in the EU, which impacts its ability to quickly adjust to economic changes.   Greece economic statistics were (significantly)   misreported, contributing to the rapid decline in stability.  And, Greek tax evasion is estimated at 13B Euros a year.  This is likely not a full list of the differences between Greece and other EU countries, but it’s a start  and the outline can continue to evolve as more information is provided on the issue.

Once the top portion of the outline is complete, the impacts to the goals can be addressed.  Again, many of these impacts can be pulled from the timeline.  There were some citizen deaths associated with rioting as a result of proposed economic policies, which is an impact to the safety goal.  Spending cuts and tax increases impact the customer service goal (in this case, the “customers” are the citizens of Greece).  The production goal is impacted because of high (above 16%) unemployment, and the financial goals are impacted by a debt rating just above default and a 110B euro default.  Last but not least, there is the potential for impact on the European Union if the crisis spreads beyond Greece.

As you’ve noticed, no real analysis has yet taken place.  We’ll look at some of the causes contributing to the      current issues in Greece in an upcoming blog.  Click on “Download PDF” above to view the timeline and outline

City Facing Default

By ThinkReliaiblity Staff

A small Rhode Island town is on the brink of financial disaster.  A low tax basis and mounting liabilities are leaving Central Falls with few options short of filing for bankruptcy protection.   The town has requested financial assistance from state and federal governments and is begging pensioners to accept lower benefits.  But how did they get to this point, and what can be done to keep neighboring towns – and the state itself – from bankruptcy?  A Cause Map visually shows how this occurred.

Like other towns facing financial difficulty, Central Falls accepted more debt than they are now able to pay.  This two-fold reason is at the center of the Cause Map.  All of the effects Central Falls now faces – such as closed town services and the loss of local jobs – stem from the fact that the city had to cut spending.  The city had to cut spending because it is facing bankruptcy.  The Cause Map method allows us to trace the reasons back even further and build a complete picture.

The first piece is that the town has a large debt – $80M to be exact – in pension liabilities for its 214 city police officers and fire fighters; this is in addition to $25M in budget deficits over the next five years.  The generous pensions can be traced back to two state laws regarding public worker negotiations.  Rhode Island is one of the few states that allows workers unlimited collective bargaining, meaning that workers can negotiate for a higher salary for any reason.  Without any limits, talks often broke down.  When talks broke down arbitrators stepped in, and their decisions were binding.  In past years, arbitrators often settled on benefits that were comparable to surrounding towns instead of what the city could actually afford.  Unlimited collective bargaining and binding arbitration together contributed to the poor negotiations and overly-generous benefits.

The second piece is that the town doesn’t have a large income.  It has a small tax basis since the median family income is only around $33,000.  Other sources of income have been pulled back as well – like state and federal funding.  The state is facing similar issues, and is in no place to bail out the multiple municipalities at risk.  The federal government had extended aid, but rescinding it when Central Fall’s credit rating was downgraded by Moody’s.

Municipal bankruptcy is a rare occurrence, with fewer than 50 occurring in the last 3 decades nationwide.  State bankruptcy is practically unheard of.  Arkansas was the last to default on its bonds, following the Great Depression.  This is in part to bankruptcy laws put in place after to avoid such an occurrence.  When one town goes bankrupt, neighboring communities are often negatively affected.  The resulting domino effect could be disastrous.  Rhode Island is a small state with little room to maneuver if local towns – like Central Falls – start going bankrupt.