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Why Mastering Budgets Can Advance Your Career

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

By Michael R. Ford
August 9, 2019

It is not uncommon for my budgeting students, particularly pre-service students, to ask me why the course is important. It is a reasonable question. Most Masters of Public Administration (MPA) students do not end up working in finance departments. But, I tell them, even if you have no ambition of working in a budgeting office, mastering budget documents is a powerful practical skill for career advancement.

Most have us have experienced the job interview question, “What is your greatest weakness?” Rather than saying you work too hard or care too much, I always advise students to answer honestly regarding their lack of experience, i.e. say you know there will be a learning curve given you do not have years of experience with the organization. This lack of experience is something every new employee faces, but it is something that can be overcome by mastering your organization’s budget. It takes years to fully understand the institutional history of an organization, but only a couple of hours to master its finances.

Just a quick glance at an expenditure summary page (usually in the first 20 pages of a budget) will give you a pretty good idea of that organization’s priorities. There is of course value to asking colleagues what they feel is important and not important, but there is little ambiguity in the actual financial numbers. Comparing a few years of budget documents and looking for trends can provide an even fuller picture of how the organization’s priorities are evolving over time. For more complex organizations you can easily find department level expenditure summaries that can provide a more granular look at what matters to your immediate colleagues.

Knowing where the money is coming from is no less valuable. Revenue options are always limited in the public sector. An employee who fully understands the sources of the revenue funding their department and/or program is an employee well-positioned to be creative during the annual (or bi-annual) budget process. The budgeting process is often a zero-sum game where different departments or programs are seeking pieces of the same pie. Going into that competition with a clear understanding of revenue sources gives you a competitive advantage.

Mastering budgets also breaks up the upper-management information monopoly. Early in my career I was lucky enough to have a senior colleague stress the importance of this idea to me. He told me plainly that knowing how to navigate budgets will make me indispensable as a source of information. Sure enough, I very quickly found myself in decision-making situations way above my pay grade simply because I knew where the money was coming from and where it was going. Consider, if you were an organization’s CEO and needed to bring an expert to a meeting—who would you want? A person with a more senior title that needs to make a phone call to answer a finance question, or a more junior person who can answer questions immediately?

So how do you master budget documents? As all of us who teach or study Public Administration can attest, public-sector budget documents can be dense and confusing. When students ask me how to prepare for a public-sector job interview I advise them to:

  • Pull the budget from the organization’s webpage.
  • Review the overall expenditure and revenue summaries.
  • Review the budget for the department for which you are interviewing.
  • Make a list of questions.
  • Repeat the process to try to answer your questions.

Yes, it is a tedious process, but one that forces you to engage with the document in a constructive manner. There is no substitute for reading source documents. The more you do it the more comfortable you will get. Once you are actually working for an organization there is a value to tracking budget trends over a period of time. This forces you to engage with common information that was presented in slightly different ways at different times. As an added bonus you will have a historical record of organizational finances immediately available at all times. 

In summary, public sector budgeting is not just a core class to survive on the way to your degree. It is a class that provides hard skills that will lead to career advancement. Someone who is able to navigate budgets quickly and comfortably will often be the most indispensable person in the room when difficult questions arise. Making the most of finite resources is the perpetual challenge facing government. Those who have a full understanding of where the money comes from, and where it goes, are best positioned to meet that challenge and advance their own careers.


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 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.

 



 

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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.

One Response to Why Mastering Budgets Can Advance Your Career

  1. Cheryl McKenzie Reply

    August 12, 2019 at 4:59 pm

    Thank you for the article, very helpful. What I gathered from the article is the difference between budget and budgeting, a this often time confused.

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