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The Makings of a Good Municipal Budget Document

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

By Michael Ford
December 12, 2017

A municipal budget is so much more than numbers – it is a binding contract by which government officials translate the values of the community they serve into an actionable resource allocation plan. When done well, it is a beautiful thing. Unfortunately, not all municipal budgets are done well. So what are some recommended best practices, and some practices to avoid, when preparing a quality municipal budget?

First and foremost, a budget should tell a story. Too often I see budgets that begin with a torrent of numbers and absolutely no context. When I read these budgets, I, a person paid to teach budgeting, get hopelessly confused. What do you think happens to a person who is not paid to teach budgeting? Chances are they are scared off by a document that makes little sense. The great budgets out there explain the goals of the community for the forthcoming year, adequately describe the external and internal challenges facing the community, and give the reader a guide for making sense of the numbers that follow. Without a narrative that tells a clear story, the budget is merely a data dump, which is the opposite of transparency.

A good budget should also include usable trend data so the reader can compare current and proposed spending plans to previous plans. Of course, just about every budget contains some trend data, often as required by state law, but the more years available the better. It is just as important to display the trend analysis in a digestible manner, such as a simple line graph. Better yet, include a line graph which tracks a performance indicator so the reader knows both spending and performance trends over a period of time.

Related, comparing your municipality’s fiscal and performance trends against other similar-sized municipalities is a good way to legitimize and explain local spending decisions. This is of course not a groundbreaking idea, Ken’s Brown’s famous 1993 article suggests the same thing, even providing a roadmap on how to use comparative data to analyze a municipality’s fiscal health. However, why just reference this test in a budget narrative when the actual comparison can be right in the budget document? As stated, a budget is a communication tool between citizen and government. Anything which could be useful to citizens should be included in the actual document.

And now my biggest pet peeve: A good budget must be a searchable PDF. At times, I lie awake at night wondering what would possess someone to print a 200-page budget document, scan it into a PDF and post a hopelessly large and unsearchable document to their city’s website. A searchable PDF saves time, i.e. if I want to know a city’s debt level I can simply search for the word debt. A searchable PDF is also consistent with the way people obtain new information, i.e. a Google search. Some forward-thinking budget offices go further and imbed links throughout their budget to make them even easier for the reader to navigate.

Lastly, a good municipal budget document is one that meets the reader where they are at. The average citizen is not a local government wonk, not an accounting professional and not familiar with the jargon of local government finance. A few small things, however, can overcome the expertise divide between local government professional and citizen:

  • Use consistent terminology throughout the document, so as not to confuse the reader;
  • Include a glossary of important terms at the beginning of the budget;
  • Make use of graphs, white space and subheadings — a budget need not be ugly;
  • Anticipate likely reader questions and answer them in the narrative of the budget;
  • Better yet, create a Q and A that can serve as a pass-around that accompanies the budget document;
  • Never present the dreaded line-item spreadsheet without some type of narrative explanation;
  • Front load the most important information while providing links to more specific information later in the document; and,
  • Provide clear and easy instructions on how citizens can ask questions regarding the budget… and answer those questions promptly!

I am not naïve enough to expect municipal budgets to become common reading material for most citizens. Budgets are, by design and function, complex documents chock full of numbers and figures. But they are too important to not put in the little extra effort to ensure the fiscal health and service capacity of a municipality is both clear and understandable to as many citizens as possible. The small, mostly cosmetic improvements discussed here can go a long way to increasing local the transparency and legitimacy of local government financial decisions. Remember, a municipal budget is a contract between citizen and government – citizens have a right to understand what is in that contract.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He has published over two-dozen academic articles on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. Prior to joining academia, Michael worked for many years on education policy in Wisconsin.

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