Government

How Mission Creep Destroys Leadership

Especially in government, ever-growing objectives undermine effective administration.

Robin Smith · May 18, 2020

Mission creep. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the gradual broadening of the original objectives of a mission or organization.” The term was first used in the military, but Americans are witnessing it today in many areas of our government and culture.

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the goal was to “flatten the curve” of the case count to ensure sufficient capacity to treat sick Americans. Most states have successfully achieved this metric, but for many the aim became to find a cure for a novel virus that is now just over five months old. Thus, these folks demand we remain locked down (with all the ensuing economic damage) for an ever-changing goal that seems out of reach — all while the national media expertly succeeds in its dependable role ginning up fear.

Mission creep is a natural outcome in bureaucracy, which always works to prioritize its own existence rather than simply achieving the original goal. Take education for example. The goal of education as a critical institution is to prepare and equip students with proficiencies in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies or civics.

In 2019, proficiencies in reading for American students was 35% in the fourth grade and 34% in the eighth grade. That means 66% of students were not reading at grade level in their eighth-grade year. Similarly, in math, 41% of American fourth-graders were proficient in arithmetic while only 34% of eighth-graders were at grade level. Again, 66% of eighth-graders are not able to perform math at grade level.

While scores have remained essentially unchanged for decades, funding for our educational system has grown exponentially.

Mission creep also allows deviant practice to become accepted standard. Consider the federal budget. It’s supposed to be the process of moving funding requests from each of the 12 subcommittees of the U.S. House, which holds the “power of the purse,” to a full budget to be voted upon and enacted annually. But it’s much easier to ignore the budget process, which would require scrutiny of programs, reauthorization of only those initiatives meeting objectives and goals, and publishing a plan to control spending.

Standard practice in Congress has become to pass continuing resolution after continuing resolution interspersed with games of chicken over shutting down the government to squeeze massive amounts of money for this or that holdout in exchange for their critical vote. Rewarding these holdouts to feather their political nests was one of the key contributors to our nation’s mounting debt well before coronavirus.

According to a January 2018 analysis by Pew Research, “Congress has managed to pass all its required appropriations measures on time only four times: in fiscal 1977 (the first full fiscal year under the current system), 1989, 1995 and 1997.” In other words, since 1974, full-time and handsomely paid legislative members have only managed to do their jobs in four of those years.

The way to prevent mission creep is to remain disciplined to the specific jurisdiction or statement of purpose of any organization or government. It’s easy to say but so difficult to do. It’s even harder when an entire political party employs Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals to organize citizens into a collective of the disgruntled — “agitate to the point of conflict,” make sure “demands are always changing,” and pick a target of criticism, “freeze it, personalize it and polarize it.”

In 2020, we’re watching the destructive force of mission creep. Americans must demand that our leaders remain true to their duties of office and the roles of governance.

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