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The Municipal Budget Onion Analogy

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

By Michael R. Ford
July 12, 2020

Municipal budget season is kicking off, and our backyard vegetable garden is in bloom, making this a perfect time for the municipal budgeting onion analogy. For the past seven years my poor students have suffered through this clumsy analogy, and there is no time like the present to bring it to the masses. So what exactly do onions and municipal budgets have in common?

For many, it is enough to simply know that the onion is an onion. If you are doing the shopping, but not the cooking, an onion may just be one piece of produce to check off of a shopping list. Municipal budgets are mandated in state constitutions, and for purposes of compliance it is enough for some to simply know they are being done.

But, when you go to the grocery store you encounter many kinds of onions. A novice chef may find themselves wondering which onion is best; the white onion, yellow onion, red onion or perhaps even a shallot? The answer, of course, depends on what you are cooking. I was thinking of this during a recent discussion about the merits of priority-based budgeting compared to other budget models. There is no one best budget model. The right model is a function of what you are trying to accomplish with your spending plan. The right budget model is also a function of what your stakeholders, e.g. residents, councilmembers and city staff, will accept. It is like a meal cooked for picky children. It really does not matter how great it is if the kids will not touch it.

Onions can also go bad, regardless of type. If the recipe calls for a red onion, but you pick out a rotten one, it does not really matter that you picked the right kind of onion. Rotten is rotten. In my experience I have seen demands, usually from political actors, to move towards a specific type of budgeting model (zero-based budgeting for example). The rationale for adopting a specific model is usually well-intentioned. But, implementation of the model fails for any number or reasons. Staff may not have the time or knowledge to do it right. There may be disagreements about what the model actually looks like. Or, initial interest in the model may fade, and departments drift back to previous budgeting practices. Bottom line is that even the right budgeting model can fail for reasons that go beyond the model itself.

Onions can also have many uses depending on the cook’s goals. Some cooks will only use the first layer of the onion. In the budget world this would be the executive summary. As I’ve pointed out before, most of the information residents will care about will be in the executive summary. Other cooks will use large slices of the onions. This is akin to the department-level revenue and expenditure summaries. Still others will mince the onion into tiny pieces for all kinds of reasons. These are the budget hawks looking to understand every expenditure and revenue source. Note that to mince a budget you must first make a few large slices. To put it another way, it is impossible to understand the specifics of a budget without first viewing the summary information.

The larger point here is that a municipal budget, like an onion, simultaneously serves multiple purposes and multiple audiences. And that is ok. A good municipal budget document will tell the story of a municipality’s operations in multiple formats. Those who want the outer layer only can be accommodated, while those who want the whole thing can also be accommodated. Yes, going deeper into a budget will require some work from the reader, but it should not be too complicated. Simple thinks like a glossary of terms, embedded links and clear explanations of how information is being presented and why should guide the reader. To strain the analogy even further, a budget should have a suggested recipe page to give the reader an idea of what to do with the onion.

Lastly, every onion is flawed. Sometimes it is the fault of the farmer and sometimes it is the fault of the shopper, but usually it is a function of complex external forces like weather and climate. Yet even a flawed piece of produce can yield something delicious. In the field we talk a lot about incremental budget systems, but I wish we talked more about ways we can incrementally improve the usefulness of municipal budgets. A few small steps to increase transparency and readability will go a long way. Or to put the onion analogy to bed, a simple recipe for the onion is more likely to be successfully executed by more people than a complex recipe.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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