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Book Review: “City on the Line”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Darin Atteberry
December 3, 2018

When I consider the changes Fort Collins has gone through in recent history, one of the most transformational was our shift to budgeting for outcomes (BFO) in 2005.

Moving from traditional across-the-board increases and cuts to creating a budget based on priorities and outcomes was—and often still is—a revolutionary approach for government agencies. In Fort Collins, BFO made us more accountable to our community, elected officials and colleagues. It pushed us to offer greater transparency into our expenses, operations and performance. We moved from the days of a “trust us” model of government, to one highly data driven, able to demonstrate the efficacy of every program and service. And when we cannot demonstrate those things, BFO drives us to have hard conversations about whether to continue.

In many ways, BFO was the first step in many transformational changes over the past 13 years, from developing a city-wide strategic plan, to voters passing a sales tax increase during the height of the Great Recession, to being named a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award recipient in 2017.

More than one decade into this experience, I can say without a doubt that BFO has made us a better organization and better able to serve our community. It forced us to focus on what residents really want from their local government, to prioritize those things and to innovate and collaborate to achieve them.

In his new book, “City on the Line”, Andrew Kleine, former budget director for the City of Baltimore, candidly shares his experiences moving Baltimore to a similar outcome-based budget process. It is a must-read for all interested in greater accountability and innovation in government. Baltimore’s journey is a fantastic example of how to deploy a new budget model against the backdrop of local government complexities.

Kleine explains the often-bureaucratic government budget processes with clarity and humor, sharing personal examples from Baltimore and other communities, offering compelling counter-arguments to common objections to overhauling the budget structure.

“City on the Line” uses Baltimore’s history with outcome-based budgeting as the primary example of how local governments can not only weather economic challenges, but also leverage their budgets to spur innovation. How? By moving the focus to outcomes themselves, not the ways we traditionally have achieved them.

An outcome is not the mere existence of a city program, service or staff position. Rather, those services are how we achieve the desired outcomes. The emphasis on outcomes is not just a budget exercise. Cities of all sizes can prepare for the future through strategic planning and aligning resources to achieve specific goals. A focus on outcomes—not methods—spurs innovation as we look hard at what actually will move the needle toward our targets.

Baltimore serves as a great example of the celebrations and challenges of outcome-based budgeting. It takes more work than the status quo. It takes more time, more thought, more wrestling through tough questions. But, it is possible. In “City on the Line”, Kleine has given us an instructive, well written playbook for how to begin the journey, all while reminding us that communities get the best value for their tax dollars when they are used to achieve tangible results with measurable improvements.

Several years ago, I read a magazine article that posed the question: “What is the thing you believe that no one else believes?” Immediately, I knew my answer: I absolutely believe that local government can be great.

We can be great when we focus on specific outcomes and performance measures to provide the best services for our communities. The methods Kleine outlines will help lead local governments to great service delivery and great results.

Author: Darin Atteberry is the city manager for the City of Fort Collins, Colorado, a position he has held since December 2004. In 2013, he was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Colorado State University College of Business and in 2016, he was elected as a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. He received his Bachelor of Science from California Polytechnic State University. He can be reached at [email protected].

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