Without a doubt, one of the most important documents in local government is the budget. The annual budget gives citizens their first impression of their local government’s priorities, as the budget reflects the government’s strategy, vision and priorities. Local governments spend the most money and invest the bulk of their time on their top identified issues.
It’s not always easy to inspire the public’s trust in their local government. The integrity of the budget process helps to build or diminish trust between citizens, department leaders and elected officials. Each of them expects to see a budget process that is accurate, timely, clear, transparent and easily understandable.
In addition to developing a responsible budget that reflects the government’s priorities, how the government communicates the budget demonstrates its commitment to building trust through transparency and citizen engagement.
With those concepts in mind, we’ve put together five easy budgeting strategies for local government success.
5 Easy Budgeting Strategies for Local Governments
Any size local government, in any locale, can implement some simple budgeting strategies that will help to create a positive impact on your community. The following are five simple strategies for budgeting with an impact.
Start With a Vision and Keep Long-Term Goals Visible
Responsible budget planning actually starts with the big picture. Local governments need to have clarity not only on their financial goals and strategy, but also on their vision. Think of vision as what you want to see happen and goals as what your government needs to do to achieve that vision.
Even if you set realistic goals, you may need to alter the long-term goals as time goes on. Having visible goals gives the government and the community a target to shoot for. The best place to start is with the short- and long-term strategic plan. Start with the main objectives and work them into the budget. Take the government’s limited resources into account and determine how best to allocate them. This process will help the government address current financial needs and ensure that there will be funds for future needs.
When reviewing progress, focus on outcomes. Citizens are often more content when they know where their tax money was spent, why their taxes went up or why the government was forced to cut certain programs.
Tackle a Few Tough Challenges Every Year
It seems that there is never enough money to go around, and while there’s a lot of truth in that, it’s important not to overlook some of the more challenging issues that need to be addressed. It’s impractical to tackle all of the difficult issues at once, and that strategy isn’t likely to succeed. It’s best to pick one or two challenges and to place a high level of attention on resolving them over the next year or so. Collaborate with department heads and elected officials and come up with a strategy to address the designated problems. Execute the plan and then be sure to report the results back to the community. Under the best-case scenario, you’ll be able to overcome the challenge and score big points with the community. Under the worst-case scenario, you’ll demonstrate to the public that their government is strong enough to tackle the tough stuff and make a little progress along the way.
Get Buy-In From All Departments
Every government department has a role and a duty to its citizens. Often, department heads have the best suggestions for how best to allocate funding for their needs. The easiest way to get buy-in from department heads is to give them some say in identifying their budget needs. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to delegate some of the budgeting process to various departments as appropriate. This is often the easiest path to finding ways of making investments that actually result in savings in the line-item budget items.
Department heads and employees want to know where their department fits into the budget process. It’s a lot easier for them to get behind the budget when they have a clear understanding of the overall vision.
Communicate the Budget Plans Early and Often
Communication is actually a major part of the budgeting process. The better local governments can communicate their budget plans, the more likely they’ll be to get community and employee support across the board.
Communicate budget plans in such a way that even those who have no financial background can easily comprehend how the government prioritized the items in the budget and how the overall budget leads to long-term community progress and improvement. Many people find it easier to understand financial data when it’s depicted in tables, charts and other visual representations.
Present the data clearly, dynamically and in the most positive way possible. Use multidimensional tools and varying methods to deliver consistent messages repeatedly. Post on your Transparency Portal, which iCompass, a Diligent brand, offers as a separate web page that integrates seamlessly with your local government web page. This format is easily accessible for citizens at any time of day or night, right from the convenience of their homes. Post similar messages in the halls of the government offices and on various social media platforms.
The government’s website is a one-stop location for elected officials, government staff, department employees and local citizens to get the latest information about how their government is investing their tax money in developing their community. The government website and social media outlets are also a great place to post recognition for the hard work and diligence of government employees. The government’s website, with its sister Transparency Portal site, makes achieving transparency of the budget and other issues intuitive and easy.
Invite Citizen Input
It’s a good idea to make a practice of inviting citizens to offer their input about the services and programs that are important to them. Allowing citizen input gives the budget more credibility and entices citizens to support their government’s goals. Public hearings, town hall meetings and open houses are excellent venues to survey the public’s priorities and what they’re willing to invest additional dollars in.
There are many other ways of strategizing for successful budgeting. The best way to bring news of budget priorities is through the Transparency Portal, where citizens can view the most current changes in real time.