Editors Note: Ask an ICMA Manager is a monthly blog series where ICMA asks a current or former local government manager or local government professional to answer a question on a management issue facing local government.
Ask an ICMA Manager: How to Manage Budget Expectations?
7 Tips for Managing Budget Expectations
by Carl Swenson, retired city manager and ICMA Legacy Leader
1. Remember Who Owns It
The annual budget and the process used to create it is a reflection of elected officials' effectiveness as leaders. While successful budgeting is a collaborative process, in the end the elected body must own and justify budgetary decisions to their constituents. The annual budget helps assure that the manager and staff are in alignment with their elected leaders.
2. Follow Council Policy Goals
Actively use the "policy goals" established by the council/board. By using this policy direction as budget priorities, proposals can then be tied back to this policy direction. In this way, the policies support the budget and vice versa. This works for new initiatives as well as routine expenditures. A policy goal, for example, to "Assure the City is an Employer of Choice" can support budgeting employee wages and benefits that meet market conditions for hiring and retention.
3. Fund Plans Clearly
As service delivery plans are created and updated, it’s wise to keep the council/board updated on the assumptions used in determining implementation costs to be budgeted. Similarly, rate and fee increases are typically difficult for a council/board, so involve them early to avoid surprises. Provide ample time for discussion of the capital improvement plan funding and project schedules. Most elected officials need to discuss the capital budget in some detail.
4. Have Approved Financial Principles
Financial principles approved by the council/board are extremely helpful. Approved apart from the budget, these set the stage for budgetary decision making. They can include a range of such items as funding reserves and acceptable uses for one-time funds. Such preapproved principles create clear expectations for elected officials, residents, and staff.
5. Consider an Early Budget Session
Holding an early budget session with the elected body helps assure expectations are clear for the upcoming process. Revenue and expenditure projections can be presented, progress reported on current year items, and alerts given to areas of financial pressure. The mayor/chair and manager can also discuss how the budget sessions will be conducted, schedule, level of detail to be presented, and what is expected of staff and elected officials.
6. Work Closely with the Mayor/Board Chair
Annual budgeting highlights the importance of role definition. The mayor/board chair and the manager are partners in creating effective expectations in the budget process. Each has a distinct and mutually supportive role in assuring success. Clear and frequent communication is important. The choreography of the budget process is too important to be left to chance.
Official notices, e-lists, social media, and press releases are important and need to be used, but there is no substitute for face-to-face discussion. Meetings with elected officials, staff groups, the public, and the press will provide great opportunities to explain budget items and to gauge reactions. The last thing anyone wants is for residents to show up at a hearing with a legitimate claim of not knowing what was being proposed. Effective public outreach and communication are essential to the credibility of the government you manage, and to you.
Carl Swenson retired in 2017 after a 35-year career managing in Arizona, Illinois, and Washington. He is an ICMA Life Member, Legacy Leader, and Credentialed Manager.
Leadership and Innovation: Encouraging Residents to Vote for a Tax Increase. This 2018 blog post looks at the tough choices and innovative solutions that managers and communities have to face in tough economic times.
4 Tools to Improve Performance in Local Government Budgeting. This blog post from 2016 provides specific tools and examples of how best to improve a local government's budgeting performance.
How to Foster Two-Way Communication During the Budget Process. In a 2017 blog post, ICMA reviewed the recommendations of a report on how to improve communication between local governments and the public during the budgeting process.