The Municipal Budget Preparation Process: 5 Things To Consider

Budgeting is inevitable—the pain of it is optional. We highly suggest you take these five things into consideration in your preparation process.

Joseph, Director of Customer Success at ClearPoint, has over 10 years of experience working with customers to create efficient performance management and strategy execution processes.

There are as many types of budgeting approaches as there are municipalities! And on top of that, every municipality knows the budgeting process is an inevitability and is necessary to keep your city up and running. But the truth is, the municipal budget preparation process can be downright difficult. So in order to succeed, it’s critical to make sure your process is smooth and well thought out.

What Is A Municipal Budget?

While municipal budgets vary - a small towns budget will likely differ from that of a large cities budget - the municipal budget will aim to outline how resources coming from many different sources will be allocated. Typically this will include a highlight of expected revenue as well as estimated expenditures across various departments and services.

The National Advisory Council of State and Local Budgeting neatly summarizes five municipal budgeting best practices:

“A good budget process:

  • Incorporates a long-term perspective,
  • Establishes linkages to broad organizational goals,
  • Focuses budget decisions on results and outcomes,
  • Involves and promotes effective communication with stakeholders, and
  • Provide[s] incentives to government management and employees.”

Is your municipality living up to its full potential? Find out eight things that could be missing from your strategic plan.

To take this a step further, we’ve expounded on why each of these elements is critical. If you take these five things into account, you’ll have a solid mindset about your budgeting process.

The Municipal Budget Preparation Process: 5 Things To Consider

1. Your municipal budget guidelines should incorporate a long-term perspective.

Even if your budget only extends through the fiscal year, you’ll want to think into the future when creating it. That way, you’ll be considering how to budget for important projects that aren’t right in front of you but will eventually require funding.

2. Your municipal budget should establish linkages to broad organizational goals.

No municipality has an unlimited budget (or unlimited time to formulate that budget). This means every municipality has to carefully consider their limited resources and how to allocate them properly. The best way to do this is to start with your municipal objectives and back into your budget from there. By doing this, you’ll ensure that your strategic plan (which should have included input from constituents across your municipality) is taken into account during the budgeting process.

Show a visual comparison of projected budget to the real cost of implementing initiatives. Use a Budget vs Actual Dashboard.

3. You should focus municipal budget decisions on outcomes.

Because the majority of budgeting processes take information from previous years and the current year into advance—as well as projections for the next few years—you’ll need to have at least some of your municipality’s outcomes in mind while budgeting. If you have a clear set of goals (see step #2 above), then you should have key performance indicators or outcomes linked to those goals. Many high-performing municipalities will align their major budget items to outcomes to demonstrate why they are spending their funds in a certain way. This way, your constituents can better understand why there’s been an increase in taxes or why a program has been cut.

4. Your municipal budget should involve and promote effective communication with stakeholders.

If you’ve complied with suggestion #2 and #3 and focused your budgeting decisions on goals and outcomes, it’s then important to communicate this with anyone who has a stake in city government. This includes municipal employees, businesses, citizens, council members, the mayor, administrators, and more. One of the best ways to do this is to have a public-facing community dashboard on your website. This gives you a simple way to express to your community where tax dollars are going and whether or not you’re meeting your goals.

5. Your municipal budget should provide incentives to government management and employees.

When your strategic plan is aligned and incorporated into your municipal budget preparation process, you’ll see buy-in increase across your municipality. Both government management and employees will be able to see that what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis is contributing to yearly goals and that their contributions are important to the success of the municipality.

Incentive compensation is trickier—and sometimes not possible in government—but giving recognition is easy and doesn’t cost much. It also has a high payout in employee satisfaction. At a minimum, you should be consistently looking for ways to encourage the right employee behavior across the organization.

A Final Takeaway

Think of your budget less as an operational necessity and more of a leveragable tool. If used properly, you can ensure that you meet your goals (laid out in your strategic plan) by tying them directly to your budget (which informs what you’re able to do). These two elements should be symbiotic. If you follow the five suggestions above, you’ll be able to do just that!

It’s important to communicate your local government’s budget objectives, as well as the budget performance throughout the year. There are many ways to share your budget both internally and externally including with budget books, press releases, presentations and via social media. When sharing your budget, you may want to consider also sharing the overall progress of the goals your budget is tied to with a performance management tool or dashboard.
Budgeting decisions directly affect residents and the places that they live and work. To ensure support of the strategic plan and budget, regardless of the types of budget that you are preparing, engage your residents in advance through surveys, open houses, forums and panels. Many organizations also provide a place online where residents can review the budget priorities and performance and provide feedback.

Ways to engage residents in the process include: Open houses Citizen academies Focused discussion sessions Needs surveys The annual budget directly affects where citizens live and work, and should be influenced by their needs and concerns.

The budget preparation process varies by organization and the budget format that your organization uses. All budgeting processes should start by defining your organization’s high-level goals. Typically, this is when you want to get feedback and input from internal stakeholders (like your City Manager and Department Directors) and external stakeholders (like residents and local businesses). Then, you’ll need to choose which budget process you’re going to use and educate all members of your budget office on the process. You’ll also need to ensure you have a process for departments to submit budget requests both during and after the annual budget process.

Once you’ve received feedback and all requests, you’ll need to balance the budget and allocate funds appropriately. Throughout the year, provide updates to stakeholders and don’t forget to provide annual reports at the end of each year.

When done correctly, budget planning has many benefits for a local government and it’s community. By engaging residents and sharing progress, local governments increase transparency and trust. Multi-year plans help to ensure decision-making is long term and by tieing budgets to goals, they can be shifted as priorities shift.
The Municipal Budget Preparation Process: 5 Things To Consider