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If the public were asked what they want from local government, according to Bowman and Kearney’s State and Local Government text, the answer would be “to be governed well.” But citizens often do not understand the workings of local governments or the variables that translate into being “governed well.” Citizens might know that water treatment, police protection, fire fighting and prevention, recreational activities, and land use planning are provided by city and/or county government. The public sometimes knows that local governments might offer services for the treatment and prevention of physical and mental health problems. Citizens actually see policy outcomes, or as Thomas Dye would say ‘what government does and does not do,’ but they might not understand the factors leading to or affecting those policy outcomes.
Within a local government, the budget document is the most important policy document. It is the document that can help a citizen understand the factors that affect the programs and services provided to the public. If we adhere to Dye’s definition of policy as everything a government does or does not do, the government’s fiscal year spending plan should reflect everything the government jurisdiction will do in the following year. Therefore, by omission the budget will reflect those things the jurisdiction will not do. The public’s ability to read and comprehend the budget is an activity that can assist them in determining if they are governed well. It is the government’s responsibility to provide a document that can be read and comprehended, thus revealing what will and will not be done.
A well-developed budget document will meet four criteria: 1) it reveals the policy decisions of a governing board, i.e. services and programs to be offered; 2) the document presents a financial plan for revenue and expenditures; 3) it reflects the operations plan of the governing board, e.g. through dedicated staffing patterns and organizational structure; and 4) the budget is a communication device for the public and other interested parties. The budget document should clearly reflect how the public’s money will be used, as well as the organizational structure through which the programs and services will be carried out,
The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) (www.gfoa.org) uses the above criteria when considering budgets for their Distinguished Budget Presentation Award. The University of North Carolina School of Government, in their Local Government Board Builders series, introduces Brenman and Allison’s Local Government Budgeting by stating “the adoption of the budget is one of the most important activities undertaken by local government officials each year.” The authors go on to state in their “Budget as a Policy Tool” chapter that the budget serves as the “statement of the policy priorities of the jurisdiction.”
Why does the GFOA and the UNC School of Government focus heavily on the idea of policy, linking the budget document and the idea that the budget is the most important policy document? Because that budget document reflects, or certainly should reflect, everything the government is going to do for the citizens in the community, i.e. the public. If the public wants to be governed well, as contended by Bowman and Kearney, the public needs to know and understand how their tax money will be spent and they need to know the programs and services to be offered by the jurisdiction. When they know that, they can better determine if they consider themselves “governed well.”
Taking the idea of the public budget as the primary policy document a step further, other policies must be reflected in the budget. Revenue and expenditure policy, capital investment policy, or organizational policies have to be a part of the budget document. How do we structure our government, and its departments, to most effectively and efficiently carry out the work of the public? These policies fit within the four criteria mentioned previously in this article, criteria used by GFOA in evaluating good budgets. Simply said, the public budget is a public policy document. It is a spending plan that reflects everything our governments are going to do within their jurisdictions and it reflects how that work will be accomplished.
Being governed well begins with the jurisdiction’s policy for its citizens. It begins with what the jurisdiction is going to do and what they are not going to do for the public. It is through the budget document that the public can determine what is going to be done. Thinking of the public budget as the most important policy document can provide a framework for how we view the government’s programs and services and how they carry out those services. It is the first step in the four criteria to help the public begin to answer the question “are we governed well?”
Author: Patricia Mitchell is the county manager and economic developer for Ashe County NC, a small rural mountain county. She has served as economic developer since 2004 and was appointed county manager in 2012. She oversees the jurisdiction’s 40 million dollar budget and has considerable experience in grant writing, helping to secure more than 10 million in grant funds for various projects and initiatives. Pat has an MPA and DPA from the University of Georgia, and is an adjunct professor at Appalachian State and NC State University. Prior to her tenure in Ashe County, Pat was on the MPA faculty at East Carolina University.