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How to Take Government Budgets Off Autopilot

To shape effective policy and keep their promises, politicians need to focus on outcomes.

Canceling cruise control on a car.
(Shutterstock)
When I was running for mayor of Kansas City, Mo., my campaign mantra was “Clean, safe neighborhoods in a city that works for regular folks!” I admit that my slogan wasn’t all that creative or a lot different from the vision of mayoral candidates everywhere. These policy objectives are nearly universal: to create and maintain conditions that make a city a place where people want to live and work and, perhaps, raise a family.

The budget is the primary tool to achieve what is promised. That’s what the public administration textbooks will tell you, and the politicians will agree. But most of the time the reality is closer to how then-Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon put it to Andrew Kleine in early 2008, as he recounts his interview with her to become the city’s budget director. “The budget is like a $3 billion black box to me,” she told him. “The decisions brought to me are at the margins, which means that, as far as I know, 99 percent of the budget is basically on autopilot.”

When I was in Kansas City, the total budget was about $1.3 billion, but only a small fraction of it was truly discretionary. In 22 years with the city, first as auditor and then as mayor, I attended an awful lot of contentious budget hearings. The fight was almost always over something like a $5,000 grant to some nonprofit. The bulk of the budget was just as Dixon described, on autopilot.

In city after city, mayors are creating an alphabet soup of new positions -- chief innovation officers, chief performance officers and so on -- focused on improving results. These are not bad things to do, but they are not by themselves going to make the birds sing. What is needed is a way to harness the budget-setting process for outcomes. A powerful argument for this was set forth in The Price of Government, the 2004 book by David Osborne and Peter Hutchinson. Their ideas struck a deep chord in Kleine. In his new book City on the Line: How Baltimore Transformed Its Budget to Beat the Great Recession and Deliver Outcomes, he tells the story of his 10 years as Baltimore’s budget director, pushing for and steadily improving outcomes-focused budgeting.

Kleine’s book brings to mind the fraught relationships between the professionals and the politicians. An aggressive and muscular posture on the part of a staff person is going to be threatening to a lot of politicians, and agency heads can use that tension to undermine and eventually eliminate a staff leader who is innovating. Innovation almost always brings conflict.

But it’s worth the struggle. I was mayor during the last recession and frequently heard that Kansas City was “broke.” During the budget battles I would say, “We’re not broke, we’re going to spend $1.3 billion. That’s an awful lot of money. The question is how to get the best results for it.” Kleine’s book offers a game plan for how to get that done. 

Mark Funkhouser, a former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City, is president of Funkhouse & Associates, an independent consulting firm. He can be reached at mark@mayorfunk.com.
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