The 5 Cs of Better Municipal Budgeting
By: Nick Kittle, Cartegraph government performance and innovation coach
It’s budget season! And, while I’m sure that conjures up images of Mai Tais, sandals and endless sand beaches full of numerical fun, it also is a major stressor for most of us. The local government budget process not only controls our funding and ability to provide services to our citizens, but it's also a major statement about what our community values. It’s the living embodiment of our strategic priorities—especially in a difficult budget year like this one. The real question is, how can we be effective in fighting and advocating for our priorities amidst a sea of difficult choices this year?
As a former PW director and after 15 years in local government, I’ve seen my fair share of local government budget processes unfold, some better than others. But, it is possible to be effective in getting resources—even in difficult years—and there are some common threads to those. Some are less obvious than you might think. Here are my 5 tips to get your budget proposal the consideration it deserves.
It's critical that you use data to help tell a compelling story and clearly communicate your plan. But the data alone is not enough. Most people are unable to interpret straight data, as it is not their expertise or specialty. That's why it's important to take the time to add context and help interpret what the data means for your end audience. And remember, your end audience isn’t just your boss. It's likely the city or county manager, the council, or the citizens.
No matter who your audience is, use data-driven decision-making to communicate the story and help them realize the possible implications of a reduced budget to community goals, while also explaining the possible opportunities of <gasp> increased investment. One technique I used to great effect was to have my teams (at the supervisor level), develop short showcase stories—one-page, front-and-back, with at least one picture—to help highlight something the team is proud of. This could be an innovation, efficiency gain, cool project, or any other example of solid work. These stories helped our audience see that we were making good choices with the funds entrusted to us. They also gave senior leaders and elected officials an easy way to tout what they (read: we) were doing for our community. At a minimum, clarity allows others to engage and help advocate for you.
Let’s not be afraid of this word. Outsourcing (and its more appropriate partner: managed competition) is an effective way to demonstrate good use of taxpayer or ratepayer dollars. By using data from systems like Cartegraph, organizations can determine the exact costs for performing services and do comparisons to the private sector who might offer to provide the same services.
We used this data in Colorado Springs to determine which functions made sense to keep in-house (snow plowing and mowing) because government can perform it better or cheaper, and those we should consider sending out (street sweeping) to private partners. Even the process of managed competition itself put internal operations in a position to get creative and be more efficient.
As with anything your community might consider sending out the door, the devil is in the details. So be mindful, but the first conversation usually started with some statement of “the private sector could do this cheaper” by an elected official, which in an apples-to-apples comparison was seldom the case. This is going to come up in your community if it hasn’t already, and by tracking the data and leaning in, you can use that information to build the case and be ready for competition when it comes knocking.
What sources of funding do you currently have access to? General fund dollars only? What about other funding sources? What about grants, public-private partnerships, special funds, enterprise funds, etc.? Take the time to explore as many potential sources as possible.
For example, we had a parking enterprise with substantial reserves that people thought could not be activated for other uses because of rules surrounding enterprise funds. However, upon reading the legal language on the parking enterprise fund, we learned that it could be used to make “improvements to areas adjacent to parking facilities,” which included parking meters. That meant that we could use enterprise funds to make safety improvements to alleys, sidewalks, parks, lighting, etc. adjacent to parking meters and garages, allowing us to make major improvements in the downtown.
By partnering with the downtown and another grant fund, we were able to make hundreds of thousands of dollars of public works and parks improvements, to the benefit of all. Get creative with your potential funding sources and leverage what you can. This includes CARES Act funding. That alone could be an entire article, but please speak with your leaders about how this funding is being used because it has a very broad potential application and could lead to some unforeseen opportunities.
Remember to plan for your ultimate audience when communicating. Remove all industry jargon and three-letter acronyms. The people viewing and reading your budget proposal will not have your deep knowledge on subjects, nor should they. Their job is to make policy decisions about where you are going. Your job is to make your story relatable in human terms to help build your case within those policy decisions.
Tip: Communicate in a way that your boss' boss can explain the information to others and its importance, even when you’re not in the room. And if you are presenting to a budget panel, remember to be bright, be brief and be gone.
- Be bright means get your energy up and get excited about what you’re presenting.
- Be brief means not everyone needs to know everything that you know in order to make a decision.
- Be gone means once you’re done presenting, leave the room!
Use these tips to help your presentation stand out as energizing, engaging, and informative.
That’s right—coffee. Buy your budget liaison or budget team coffee (or chocolate) and sit down with them (at an appropriately socially-distanced outdoor venue, of course) to get to know how the money moves, what the process looks like, how approvals happen, how “spare” money gets used or portioned out, where asset sales go, etc.
By sitting down and understanding the process (not just the budget timeline doc you were already given) and how all the critical funds work, you’ll know how best to craft your budget proposal. Your budget teams know where the money in the couch cushions of governmental budgets are. Think of it like finding a really good slice of sofa pizza. It may have some strings attached, but nobody is claiming it so it's free game.
And if you have any ideas related to selling assets or increasing revenues, this is a good chance to advocate for a portion of the funding to come back to your department. For example, if we sell 10 pieces of unused public works equipment, can we get 50% of the revenue from the sale of the equipment to buy new equipment as opposed to it all going to the general fund? Trust me, that coffee will be the best return on investment (beside Cartegraph, of course) that you’re likely to get. Remember, the budget team may be the only people in the room with the decision-makers when it comes down to a critical funding decision and you want them on your side.
Yes, there are a number of very complex factors going into this year’s budget process, but it doesn’t have to mean dramatic cuts in every case. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Can you help clearly communicate the story of your department in a way that is relatable, data-driven, and engaging?
- Can others tell your story without you needing to be in the room to explain it?
- Can you demonstrate a willingness to lean in on competition and efficiency because you know you have the data to back it up (or are willing to get the data)?
- Can you show your team’s positive results and get creative about funding sources to get what you need?
- Does your budget team know you, what you do, and why it’s important?
- Do you know how the process works so you have an advocate in the room?
- By tackling these big questions, you stand a much better shot at getting the funding you need to meet the needs of the community you serve.
And then, my friends, you can grab that Mai Tai.
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