Tis the Budget season and many executive directors, municipal managers and other public administrators in small organizations aspire for better budgets that facilitate policy making, particularly for volunteer boards or part-time elected officials.
Budgeting is an expression of values. But in a small organization, how do find time to do more than a basic spreadsheet? Instead of carrying around that frustration, why not set an intention to improve your budget little by little over a series of years? This smaller, incremental approach, if done with a clear vision of where you are going, will bring about lasting gains and won't require dropping everything else while you valiantly try to raise the bar .
To do this, take inspiration from the free criteria of the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) Distinguished Budget Awards program. That may seem counter intuitive as the Award is a significant accomplishment. But with the right "baby steps" approach you will begin to see real gains in the quality of information available for making decisions.
Start by being aware of the mandatory criteria of this program (see table below). This baby step allows the weaving-in of budgeting activities into the day-to-day management of your organization (instead of waiting until "budget season"). For example, has a strategic, comprehensive or other planning process recently taken place? Great! Rely on the mission, goals and objectives in that to kick of the goals of your budget. Participating in a certification programs such as Sustainable Pennsylvania? Awesome! A good place to start for performance measures.
Once you know the components of a "good" budget, you can begin to plug much of your existing work into each of the following major categories of the GFOA Criteria. This table presents the budget questions to be answered by each category (table best viewed in desktop browser). Make incremental gains over a few years and you are well on your way. It makes me think of what my dad always said, "Inch by inch, life's a cinch...Yard by yard, life is hard."
The Government Finance Officers (GFOA) of US and Canada has issued an "End the Acronym" policy statement urging all stakeholders to refer to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report as just that or as the "Annual Report" or even say each letter of the former acronym individually "C. A. F. R." As the premiere professional organization of government finance officials, GFOA is challenging a population that loves acronyms to discontinue one of the most widely used.
It is about upholding the profession's ethics. The acronym sounds like a slur to a more international audience and GFOA has placed a high value on Diversity and Inclusion in its new Code of Ethics. This got me to thinking about how the Code has changed. I had been using the old code in teaching and training for years, so I pull out my synopsis of it a lined it up with the top level statements of the new code (in a spreadsheet, of course!):
What was most striking in this comparison was the use of "I" statements in the new code. That and broad statements of principles. It is simultaneously more expansive and more succinct. Overall, a very impressive change. When I dug a little deeper I found the YouTube video GFOA produced for the new code. At time of writing it has 3 likes (one of which is mine!) Give it some kudos if you too are impressed by GFOA's more holistic approach to ethics and how government finance strives to make the world a better place. After all, what we budget and what we measure is ultimately a statement of values.
And speaking of values, GFOA has also come out with a publication to take inclusion up a notch and address directly issues of racial justice and the concept of defunding the police. Whether that phrase inspires or exasperates you, one thing for sure is that local governments and finance officers will sit at the cross roads of divergent views. GFOA has taken the topic head on and produced various resources.
Coaching and facilitation helps organizations and individuals address important topics in a proactive and forward-focused way. I feel honored to be in this space and to do work imbued with peace and accountability. If you are tackling issues of ethics as an individual or in your organization, finance or otherwise, please let me know if my services can help.
For a generation, one of the most influential ideas to impact public service has been the landmark publication Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector, by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler. A rallying cry to "revolt against bureaucratic malaise" and "build something better," it has inspired many public officials seeking to promote initiative and a sense of ownership in public organizations. Costs have been reduced and programs have been reformed because of the performance management programs inspired by Reinventing Government. However, a recent column in Governing magazine outlined the unintended consequence of performance management: some public officials felt diminished by the performance management process, which shut down creativity needed to solve problems. For reinvention to deliver its high ideal, how can the technical changes such as performance management programs be built upon to allow people and groups to adapt and improve? We offer our help with this through an approach of peace and accountability. This is particularly useful when elected officials struggle with the efficiency and effectiveness of the organizations they have been tasked to lead or when staff feels politicized. This matrix shows the top level "action words" used to describe our assistance:
An approach imbued with peace and accountability doesn't avoid tough issues or assure certain outcome. It does, however, add integrity to an improvement process by building support across the spectrum of opinions on how effective workers and organizations perform. The result: increased creativity, critical thinking, and shared responsibility.
The budget is a book. Don't you believe it!
One of the most common traps of local government budget preparation is addressing the task of budgeting as a task of publishing. Collecting and compiling information, validating assumptions, winnowing that to a viable proposal, editing and publishing the document...and oh yea, don't forget balancing the budget can feel like a feat of publishing accomplishment. And it is.
Indeed, the important and rigorous Government Finance Officers Association standards fully conceive of the budget as a document and the standards of excellence reinforce the publishing paradigm. But budgeting isn't just the world's greatest term paper for local government finance nerds (a group with which the author proudly identifies). Budgeting is an exercise in values. How can organizations facilitate decision-making in a manner consistent with the duty needed when making value judgments?
One way is to focus on the principles of emergence. Committing to civic engagement, sustainable development, efficient & effective services, and positive human interactions create an expansive space for local decision-making. Making value judgments isn't easy, but committing to emergence can help communities do the job to the best of their abilities.
Susan Hockenberry's blog of suggestions for info and updates.