In the early years of the Great Depression, the equivalent of the modern U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service began promoting the planting of kudzu, a fast-growing vine introduced into the U.S. in 1876, as a natural method of mitigating soil erosion. Southern states’ antiquated farming practices were heavily detrimental to native soil replenishment at the time. Through a hand-out program combined with financial incentives and the use of the Civilian Conservation Corps in rural areas, tens of millions of kudzu plants proliferated throughout the American South by 1950.
By the mid-50s, however, ideal growing conditions, a lack of natural predators, and farmland abandonment due to the post-war economic boom combined with kudzu’s naturally high fecundity to produce an uncontrollable spread of the weed over millions of acres of the eastern seaboard where it was never intended to go. Over the next 40 years, the situation got so bad that the federal government, which had worked to spread kudzu in the first place, placed it on the official “Noxious Weed List in 1997” due to its deleterious effects and the increased costs of dealing with its fallout.
What Is Scope Creep?
The case of kudzu offers an apt analogy for how the initial goals of some project or agency (or weed) can expand out of control and, in the process, undermine the achievement of primary objectives. This effect, commonly referred to as scope creep, occurs for several reasons. These include nebulously defining project goals, constantly expanding scope to incorporate unnecessary features or add-ons, breakdowns in clear communication about the project or goal, and the inadequacy of existing processes for meeting project or institutional aims. Like kudzu, creeping scopes can have negative consequences including cost overruns, process disruptions, loss of existing functionality, and the potential for a project or institution to lose all stakeholder credibility with respect to fulfilling stated objectives.
An example of how scope creep infects existing processes occurred during the collection of population data for the 2020 Census. Privacy advocates began intensifying pressure on the Census Department to switch to a new data-collection methodology called differential privacy. This technique effectively trades accuracy at the Census-block level and lower Census geographies for an increase in personal data privacy. It works by randomly adding and subtracting people at low levels of Census geography such that, when these counts are aggregated to the supra-block level, the random additions and subtractions cancel out.
For instance, if Mr. Hunt is the only individual who lives in Census Block A and Messrs. Harris, Valentine, McLeod, Rios, and Murphy live in Census Block B, then differential privacy works by deleting Messrs. McLeod and Rios from Census Block B and adding two new, made-up individuals with similar traits as those of McLeod and Rios to Census Block A. Nominally, this is to preserve any threat to Mr. Hunt’s being identified from block-level Census data due to his being the only denizen of Census Block A.
Furthermore, when Census Block A and Census Block B are aggregated together to form the Census Block group level (one level up from block in Census’ geographic hierarchy) or higher, the counts of all members of Census Block A and B, as well as their characteristics, come out the same.
The ostensible reason for implementing differential privacy was to prevent hackers from reverse engineering personal information from Census data. This threat has never materialized, however. Even when the Census conducted a simulated “reverse engineering” hack of its own data, it was only able to accurately re-identify 38 percent of individuals in its test set.
The Census, by expanding its data collection procedures in an attempt to both collect accurate data and decrease a largely effervescent risk to Americans’ privacies, has undermined its ability to achieve its stated aims of accurately counting the American populous. The costs of this inaccuracy come in the forms of misallocated federal and state financial and political resources. This is especially true of areas with small populations (which are undercounted) and urban areas (which are overcounted). The Census’s adoption and subsequent refinement (due to complaints) of differential privacy has also led to a delay in the release of some decennial Census figures until 2023.
Scope Creep in Action (or Inaction)
Another recent example of scope creep is presently occurring. On June 15, 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Federal Reserve Racial and Economic Equity Act. Although the Senate has yet to vote on it, the bill essentially adds a third mandate to the charter of the Federal Reserve. As it exists now, the Fed’s core mission is twofold: promote maximal U.S. employment and maintain overall price stability. The proposed legislation adds to these a mandate to mitigate racial gaps in jobs, wages, and wealth.
A bit of economic background illustrates how complex the Fed’s existing double mandate is. In the short run, price and wage changes exhibit an inverse relationship with changes in unemployment. Price and wage inflation corresponds to a decrease in unemployment, and vice versa. Over a longer time period, though, this relationship, termed the Phillips Curve, breaks down as people begin expecting prices to go up and start building increases into contracts, mortgages, and other financial instruments.
The ability to maintain an uncertain, inversely related dual mandate is difficult enough. The Fed has a history of miscalculating not only the trade-off between employment and price stability, but also the timing on when and how this relationship breaks down. Adding another institutional aim, while well-intentioned, comes at the cost of the Federal Reserve being further unable to accomplish its traditional functions. This doesn’t even take into consideration its ability to accomplish new mandates it has no experience addressing.
To be clear, scope creep is not confined to the government sector. In IT, fewer than 20 percent of proposed projects are successfully resolved on time, on budget, and with their stated functionality. Denver International Airport suffered from major cost and timing overruns due to scope creep when automating its baggage handling in the mid-1990s. A colloquialism describing scope creep should be familiar to employees of large companies and institutions: “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.”
How to Solve Scope Creep
Unfortunately, fully eliminating scope creep is impossible, just as eliminating creeping, noxious weeds is. But knowing how and where scope creep crops up allows for its anticipation and minimization. Semi-flexibility when planning a project or delineating an objective helps to preclude scope creep from growing out of control. Being semi-flexible means knowing where the flexibility to expand goal-related tasks is required and knowing where this same flexibility cannot be tolerated.
A good way to operationalize this principle is to work extensively with institutional stakeholders to establish a working project scope and set deadlines. This rubric should be as specific as possible and deviations from it should be met with fierce pushback or, in extreme cases, outright refusal. The specific audience to which the project or goal is targeted should also be laid out before task-based work begins. This helps prevent “simple asks” by individuals who have no direct connection to a project or goal from expanding the scope beyond what’s already been agreed to by direct stakeholders. To clarify, mistakes should be pointed out and higher-ups should be updated on progress. But “let’s riff” or “I’m just thinking out loud here” type add-ons to a charter should be discouraged, at the least.
Specifying clear goals, identifying and involving key parties (and limiting the roles of indirect observers), and minimizing deviations from set deadlines and working procedures all serve to ameliorate scope creep. They are the herbicide that keeps the kudzu in check. Taking the time to adequately and semi-flexibly establish initial scope and adhere to it in pursuit of stated goals not only reduces project costs and ensures met deadlines, but, most critically, preserves and expands institutional credibility.