The downside of deadlines

Washington loves deadlines. Sometimes, the deadlines are real. It’s simply the case that if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, the Treasury Department will run out of borrowing authority some time in early August. Sometimes, they’re self-imposed, or fake: Congress passes a trigger that cuts spending if a deficit-reduction bill doesn’t pass by 2012, or President Obama asks Congress to present him with a plan in the next 36 hours. But according to political scientist Dan Carpenter, all these deadlines are probably not helping us get anything done:

A few years ago I joined some Harvard Medical School colleagues in examining the deadlines that, since 1992, Congress has placed upon the Food and Drug Administration’s drug reviews. Our research found that medications approved right before these deadlines were considerably more likely to be pulled from the market or have significant warning labels attached later on. More recent studies suggest that that link persists. There are, of course, good reasons for wanting to ensure that new drugs are reviewed with efficiency. The question is whether a deadline for every review, as opposed to focusing on average review times or resources, is the best way to get drugs on the market expeditiously — and our answer highlighted the downside.

When deadlines are imposed, decisions and bargains that could happen more quickly — because of momentum or normal work flow — often end up getting put off until the last minute. Social scientists have referred to this as the “eleventh-hour effect,” and we see it both in experiments and in real life. ... Because of the eleventh-hour effect, a deadline can actually slow things down. In the debt-ceiling battle, partisans on both sides expect their representatives not to back down until the very end. An early solution or compromise from either side is interpreted as giving in. ...

We might think that if deadlines don’t accelerate decisions, at least they make it clearer when a decision will be made. Yet a study I co-authored with Stanford political scientist Justin Grimmer shows that sometimes the opposite can occur. Once a decision-maker misses a deadline — and many, many deadlines are not only missed, but are expected to be missed — there is usually much less incentive to continue speedy work. This results in some decisions that meet the deadline and others that go way past it. In an examination of FDA data, we showed that the agency’s review times were certainly no more predictable (and probably less predictable) after deadlines were introduced.

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