For anyone over the age of 40, the word “mission” cannot help but conjure up images of rockets, moon landings and brave astronauts. As President John F. Kennedy said in his famous speech at Rice University in 1962:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade … because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win….”

Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University, wrote when looking back on the speech on its 50th anniversary that:

“Kennedy’s oration was front-page news around the country … But for all of its soaring rhetoric, the Rice address was grounded in pragmatism. Kennedy made the case to taxpayers that NASA needed a $5.4 billion budget. …What Kennedy did so brilliantly that day was frame the moonshot as being instrumental for U.S. security reasons.”

In 1962, our mission was clear and current: beat the Russians, get to the moon first and protect America.

Our mission was complete the minute Armstrong touched his toe on the surface of the moon (and returned successfully to Mother Earth shortly thereafter, of course). While romantic and patriotic, that mission would be terribly out of place today—52 years later.

Mission to the Moon again?

While few Americans would advocate for our return to the moon, several other government missions conceived decades ago still drive our policies on programs like social welfare and entitlements, says a new book by C. Eugene Steuerle titled Dead Men Ruling.

Twenty-five years before President Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech, we began a program called Social Security. And four years before the moon landing, President Johnson signed amendments to the Social Security Act creating Medicare and Medicaid. Today, Steuerle reminds us, those programs continue to grow and occupy front-page status in our domestic policy debates.

Steuerle calls out the so-called “Big Three”, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as programs that “remain in place and grow from year to year, unless the president and Congress enact laws to change them.” Further, he argues that funding for these programs increases whether the conditions demand they do so or not and then ultimately hamstring both the public and elected officials trying to contain costs and deficits.

According to a Congressional Budget Office report, missions conceived more than 75 years ago account for approximately 45 percent of current federal spending each year.  So why are these programs, created and championed by statesmen long since passed away, still thriving?

Dead Men Ruling further details that it is not a matter of policymakers choosing each year to spend too much or tax too little on social welfare programs; it is that they have, for decades, switched these decisions to autopilot, while knowing full well that the course is unsustainable. Autopilot, in this context, may be nothing more than code for being afraid to rock the political boat. It might also be a function of a lack of ideas; in short, a lack of vision.

How do we fix the problem of outdated programs consuming our budget, you ask? Question everything.

Political appointees, politicians, government employees and the American people must get back to the business of weighing priorities and making decisions. Choosing the right mission cannot be left solely unto governmental leaders themselves to regulate. The American people and the more than 4 million people who today toil tirelessly for the federal government need to weigh in early and often.

The most effective strategy is to challenge the status quo and question everything.

Questioning a mission is a difficult proposition, and can feel tantamount to mutiny. In a workplace setting, it can be outright dangerous—inspiring potentially damaging or career-ending labels from ”troublemaker” to  “malcontent” to “whistleblower” depending upon the circumstances. But consider the downside as a federal employee. Who wants to spend a 50-year career executing the vision of men who are long since dead and buried?

The best missions stand up to the test of scrutiny. They are relevant. They have clearly defined outcomes and deliver lasting value that can be identified and measured.

From agency head to government worker, begin your job today by asking these questions:

  • What is my mission?
  • What do we gain from successfully pursuing and achieving my mission?
  • Is my mission the right mission?

And as a taxpayer, we need to hear your voice:

  • Why am I paying for that?
  • What benefit am I getting?
  • How much of my federal dollar does that cost?

In 1962, President Kennedy had a clear mission with a defined outcome—beat the Russians, get to the moon first and protect America. What relevant, lasting value does your mission deliver? If it’s not clear, question everything.