Once you decide to become a more sustainable organization by becoming a fiscal impact city, and have had the serious conversations we recommended last week, what’ next?
A good place to start is with your budget process. Budgets are an ever-present feature of local governments. Most cities are either in the process of planning for, developing, approving, implementing or reviewing their budget. The calendar is full of budget-related responsibilities, actions and deadlines. In too many communities, the budget process dominates everything else puts staff into a continuously reactive mode. They may be focusing more on the internal demands of the budget process than on trying to connect their resources and processes to solve community challenges.
With some minor changes, your budgeting process can be reoriented into a tool to improve long-term organizational sustainability and a way to proactively help you realize your community’s vision. There will still be hard decisions. Community engagement and politics will still be a central part. The rest of this post shows how a budget process can be gradually reformed through using a fiscal impact mindset. The result will help cities realize their community vision and build a more sustainable organization.
A Framework for Budgeting
As a reference point, we will be using the budget framework developed by the National Advisory Committee on State and Local Budgeting. This framework, set down almost twenty years ago, is still one of the best starting points for local leaders who want to be proactive and focus on long-term sustainability. We will give a quick overview of this framework then talk about how a fiscal impact mindset can work in it to turn budgeting into a true tool for organizational sustainability and community prosperity. Though they define budgeting as the planning, implementing and evaluating the provision of services and capital assets, we limit our discussion this week to the operating budget. We will look at capital budgeting in a later post.
Qualities of a Good Budgeting Process
The National Advisory Council emphasized the need for budgeting to go beyond annual balancing of resources and options. They intended their report to help governments upgrade all phases of budgeting: planning, development, adoption and execution. To begin with, the entire budget process should be goal-driven. These are goals beyond preserving departmental operations with given resources. The critical difference in a good budgeting process is that it starts with community needs, vision and issues. These should motivate the government’s quest to create a suite of services that can meet those needs, realize that vision and address the issues that are most important. The budgeting process sheds light on cause and effect, the real issues, so management and elected officials can make the tough decisions and tradeoffs that are always necessary because resources are limited.
In addition to being linked to goals, they emphasize that a good budget process:
- Takes a long-term perspective – cities should look at impacts of budget decisions over many years and use the process to determine the sustainability of programs and services.
- Is focused on outcomes and results – the outcomes of the resource allocation process are the services the city provides. These should have measurable results – impacts on the community issue they are designed to address.
- Provides information and incentives to staff (and other stakeholders) – budgeting should inform decisions makers and increase stakeholder participation. It should also close the loop with all stakeholders.
Sustainability Budgeting and Fiscal Impact Analysis
Fiscal Impact Analysis is usually associated with evaluation of specific policies or development projects. How can this approach support annual budgeting? It isn’t cost effective to produce a formal fiscal impact analysis for every little decision. What is important and possible is to start thinking in fiscal impact terms when making these decisions. Stakeholders, elected officials and staff should all be aware of how resource allocation decisions produce winners and losers. Shifting funding from one area to address a priority is a good choice, but it is helpful to understand what the community is giving up with these decisions. Adopting the perspective and language of cost benefit analysis is the first step in applying fiscal impact analysis. Being aware of the consequences of tradeoffs in resource allocation and documenting the likely changes in service levels are concrete ways to start the process.
A further step requires collecting more information so local leaders can understand the costs per unit of service for various programs, the outputs of those programs and the associated changes in community indicators. This additional data does not exactly prove cause and effect, but can give hints of the relative effectiveness of different approaches to solving the same problem. Not all programs are easy to measure and have a more complicated relation to community outcomes. Still, the data collection and evaluation process can improve decision making.
The final step is to conduct a complete fiscal impact analysis of a policy change. This analysis will measure program costs and document the budget, revenue and economic impact of that change so that policy makers can see what it means for the organization and the community. Combined with community indicators and standard program performance measures, a fiscal impact analysis will help those responsible for setting the budget be well informed. Those decision makers can also share this information with constituents so that everyone is clear about the tradeoffs and likely consequences. This type of analysis can be applied to a part of the budget, the major programs or departments or to the entire budget. When applied to the entire budget it is a useful input into long-range financial planning which attempts to evaluate budget, revenue and impact out at least three years.
Becoming a fiscal impact city is more than a resource challenge. It is a major leadership and cultural challenge. The difficulty is building the organizational culture that can function in this more transparent way and building in community engagement and education processes so the public can increase their support for the hard choices local leaders need to make. In the following weeks we will look at other areas where local leaders can improve organizational sustainability by becoming a fiscal impact city.