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Priority-Based Budgets

Measurement of progress helps us plan for the future, comply with legal requirements, manage money, optimize the budget and innovate. Measurement leads to strategies. Good planning results in good measures that show us how money is being spent and where it ought to be spent.

Focusing on the tough decisions, the difficult problems and the transparency taxpayers want from their government is part of managing and measuring. These factors shape our budgets and resource allocations and define how program and project goals are being achieved. From them, we can see what is effective and ineffective.

Priority-based budgeting looks at what the problems are, whether they need short- or long-term attention, what their causes are, whether the strategies are correct and how things can be improved.

Michael Jacobson is the manager of the Performance Management Section of the King County, Wash., Office of Strategic Planning and Performance Management. In a recent presentation for the Performance Institute, he described how priority-based budgeting is being done in his county to provide results to the taxpayers.

Reports, Web sites and scorecards are part of that reporting to the taxpayers. Jacobson said, “Start where you are, wherever that is.” Strive for learning and improving management and budget planning. Accountability and transparency to the taxpayers means doing what you said you’d do. You have to use both textbook knowledge and the experience of reality to do priority-based budgeting, he said.

The National Performance Management Commission has a framework to initiate, implement and sustain performance management, to move you from principles to practices, toward improvement, accountability and better results for the public. He recommended planning once in three- to fiveyear cycles, with updates as needed. Those plans are then budgeted.

Be sure your plans have a way to determine whether successes are being achieved. For example, set baselines, standards of measurement and targets when coordinating plans and budget. Think through what the goals are, what strategies will be needed, and what exactly will change over time.

Among the goals in King County is one for improved health and safety for the community. Jacobson said two layers of data were used to measure what the citizens wanted, and how to deliver that through effective planning and budgeting. Community indicators and agency performance were examined.

For example, citizens expressed the need to feel safe in their homes, and part of their perception of that safety involved rapid response time by law enforcement. The county created relevant measures of response time and set desired outcomes. Reporting to the public was done through different models and “score cards.” Also, a Web site for the county allowed users to search by county departments, themes or measures to access information about outcomes.

Budgeting is more than just money management. There is a need to improve the measures that judge the efficiency of spending, how data is revisited to refine strategies and plans, how to collaborate or partner with other agencies, and how to make no- or low-cost improvements. Jacobson said budget allocations do not necessarily need to be changed, but there needs to be a constant look at using money in better ways.

He advised finding ways to integrate performance with the budget process. “Budgeting is the last resort of program improvement,” he said. “Budgeting with measures is an advanced and sophisticated use of performance information.” Plan what you want to occur, manage and spend the money, and show that you did what you said you would do, he said. For that, you need a plan, a direction, allocation and action.

Use performance results early in the budget process to move your agency toward its objectives and strategies. Establish a set of measures for each goal to test effectiveness, efficiency, output and service to the citizens.

“The road is not the destination,” he said. “Tell the story of your progress.”

Models for Priority-based Budgeting Concepts

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., J.D., writes in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Nov 2010

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