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Liberating Resources to Fund a Better Future

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

By Chris Fabian
December 1, 2019

The challenge facing many local governments is that they have new programs and services they wish to launch in order to create a brighter future for their communities, but they perceive that they don’t have the resources to launch these new services. Compounding that challenge, the cost of providing current services continues to increase.

One promising breakthrough solution is repurposing the resources a local government already collects – an approach championed by organizations from McKinsey & Company to What Works Cities. For example, if a local government is able to provide a program more efficiently, it may reallocate the savings towards the provision of another program. Similarly, if a regionally shared service model can be established for a particular program’s delivery, the savings can also be reallocated.

The first trick is identifying programs from which resources may be freed and reallocated away from, when it can seem that most government programs are difficult to sunset. And the second trick is identifying enough resources to reallocate that make the program worthy of creating an impact.

In 2019, a number of organizations successfully demonstrated how they repurposed over 10% of their entire budgets, freeing up the resources required to launch new and high-priority services, as well as enhancing current programs that need to grow.

Washington County, Wisconsin, is one of the municipalities that repurposed the County budget dramatically; by 13% ($13.3 million). In March 2015, it became the first County in Wisconsin to initiate priority based budgeting (PBB)—an exercise in data-creation designed to identify every program the County delivered, the cost of delivering each program, how each program aligns with the mission, vision and values and understanding opportunities for service delivery opportunities and alternatives.

Equipped with a program-specific dataset, the County pursued 3 primary opportunities to find cash available for resource reallocation:

  1. Service Level Decrease: Programs that demonstrated a low degree of alignment with the County’s objectives could be safely reduced for a more prosperous reallocation of resources.
  2. Program Efficiency: Programs that could be delivered less expensively through reorganization or technology, without compromising service levels and outcomes.
  3. Regional Partnerships: Programs for which other public-sector, non-profit or private sector partners could provide a service regionally for less, or to allow a partner organization to take on the service entirely via out-sourcing.

For example, Washington County took advantage of service level declines by using advantageous attrition when staff retired from positions in programs that scored low in terms of relevance. The Parks and Planning Department alone reduced its property tax levy reliance by $270,000 in 2017 through reducing staffing levels by 2.80 FTE in lower priority programs, resulting in $212,000 of savings that were used to fund higher priority initiatives.

Program efficiencies yielded a total of $6.1 million in savings. For example, facilities reduced staffing levels by 2.14 FTE creating savings of $50,000 in personnel costs by contracting out cleaning services. Additionally, the County Clerk eliminated the customer directory and referral program generating savings of $22,500.

But where the County really shined was in its approach to advantageous partnering, where it could get services off of its plate or combine regionally to reduce the need to provide a service if it could be provided by (or together with) a neighboring entity.

The County helped to accomplish this in 2018, when it championed a strategy called, “Counties without Borders,” in order to proactively facilitate partnership conversations with neighboring counties.

A letter from the County Board invited each of its neighboring counties to, “Match up,” against Washington County’s established program inventory. The other counties were able to literally match up and check off the list where they offer the same services as Washington County, remove from the list where they don’t offer the same and add programs where they offer additional services not offered by Washington County.

Washington County and its neighboring Ozaukee County successfully merged public health departments, saving an ongoing $300,000 in operating costs, without layoffs. Another $100,000 in ongoing savings was created with a merger of medical examiners. This cash was reallocated to provide new services that hadn’t been provided in the past and enhance current services primarily for the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), while reducing time in response to communicable disease response because of the shared regional database between both organizations. In total, this approach to sourcing saved $5.3 million.

When a community’s resources are limited, investments into every service and every project require persistent and thoughtful consideration and reprioritization.

The act of resource reallocation represents opportunities for a  a two-fold triumph:

  1. It finds the resources required to adequately staff and deliver services needed to provide for a prosperous community.
  2. It finds these resources without asking the taxpayers for more by divesting and repurposing what has already been given.

Author: Chris Fabian, Chief Executive Officer, ResourceX

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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