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Budgeting in Tumultuous Times

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

By Stephanie M. Moore
January 12, 2016

MooreBudget season has the tendency to wreak havoc on the lives of staff, not only in the budget department, but also in the entire agency. The annual budget process takes a toll on agency staff and departments, using up labor and time. Every year, departments are tasked with finding places to cut budgets, which can be staff cuts, programming cuts, department mergers or entire elimination of departments. It is no wonder the budget season causes so much turmoil and uncertainty.

The stakes are much higher at the federal level. The annual threat of sequestration has tried the patience of not only federal employees, but also regular citizens, with shutting down or cutting funding for federal government agencies and programs. Even with budgets getting tighter, it actually costs money to develop and pass a budget. According to the Brookings Institute, the 2016 budget Congress just passed had a true net cost of $76 billion.

So even working and getting to the final budget costs money. I guess it not only costs money to make money, but it also costs money to actually budget money.

Budget cuts are taking place at every level of government and alleviating the pressure is no easy task. The federal government continues to cut or eliminate budgets, pushing the burden to the states. Across the nation, states are passing that burden along to local governments, leaving them holding the bag and ultimately leaving residents left to pay higher fees and taxes. For example, Chicago has created a new tax on Netflix.

Budgets are costly, challenging and necessary. However, they can also affect the agencies’ credit ratings. With so much on the line, it is vitally important for agencies to be more innovative with planning and implementing their budgets.

Just like any physical cut, when budgets are cut, pressure must be applied to stop the bleeding. Departments and programs must be bandaged and operate under the new normal, while innovative solutions are sought to prevent future cuts.

Innovative budget approaches must be explored and implemented. Innovation at any level is a challenge. However, in order for budgets to work in today’s fiscally lean environment, innovation is a tool to help. Agencies should quickly respond to and recover from  fiscal distress by becoming more agile and flexible. Forecasting and forward thinking need to be completed to help identify risk and opportunities in advance.

Budget plans and processes should not be static and stagnate, but should be ever evolved, reviewed and updated for improved performance and output. Agencies should also be reviewed and implement best practices from other successful agencies. Innovation is a constant and ongoing practice, not a one-time occurrence. Innovation options will vary, but accepting that innovation is a means for survival is necessary.

Budget planning has far-reaching consequences and influences the entire agency and community. Therefore, budgets need to be planned with careful consideration and shared with the community. Some communities, like Round Rock, Texas, are even making lighthearted infomercial-type videos for their residents to explain the budget process. These types of videos help engage residents, educate them on how the budget works and provide real life examples of what their tax dollars actually do. Some communities are also reaching out and involving residents in the budget planning stages.

Innovation is crucial for planning and implementing a successful budget. Innovation allows new techniques to be used in order to accommodate for the new normal of doing more with less resources, both fiscal and human.

Selling the innovation options to the entire agency and stakeholders is another challenge that must be taken into consideration. Changing the group mindset and attitude to be more accepting of innovation will be a challenge. Managing the challenge head-on is vital to success. When the agency and stakeholders witness firsthand the results of the innovative techniques in practice such as a successful budget, then acceptance of innovation will finally take place. Much of the turmoil and havoc of budget season can be alleviated by embracing innovation, being flexible and agile, and getting comfortable with the new normal.

Author: Stephanie M. Moore holds a master’s degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Urban Administration. Her undergraduate degree is from Rockhurst University, Cum Laude. She is a member of Women Leading Government and ASPA Greater Kansas City. She is a program supervisor in the Community Development Department at the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas. She can be reached at [email protected]

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One Response to Budgeting in Tumultuous Times

  1. Martha Richards Reply

    January 26, 2016 at 11:33 am

    Very informative and well written, Stephanie. Grandview Park needs guidance in this arena and I am so happy you are on board.

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