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How to Budget for Continuous Improvement

For many government officials who dream of modernization, the word “budget” might as well have four letters.

Luckily, the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) have relieved some financial pressure through pandemic-related funding.

Through ARP, states and localities have received billions of federal dollars for pandemic relief. That includes Wayne County, Michigan, to the tune of $340 million — a whopping 60% to 65% of its entire general fund. How is the county approaching its budget and modernization plans to ensure the most impact? The county’s Chief Financial Officer, Hughey Newsome, shared his insights.

Think big, top-down

Wayne County has a broad vision. “[We] think of this as transformative,” Newsome said. He
encouraged agencies to integrate long-term goals and dreams, namely: What does the county look like today? And what could it look like tomorrow?

“One thing we’re trying to do as much as we can is use a top-down approach,” Newsome said. “What are the big things we need to accomplish? And everything needs to align with that.”

That’s why for the county, the pandemic dollars are more than a budget safety net and recompense for lost revenue. Government will use the $340 million to realize an equitable future as well.

“It’s the biggest effort [of] a programmatic approach to closing something as broad as inequities in the deployment of services and goods,” Newsome said.

One of the main obstacles, however, is ensuring that the county has the right communication model to implement these funding initiatives. It has learned the importance of engaging with community partners it may not have before, such as religious leaders. It’s critical to get these people at the table as you plan how to use the funds, as opposed to after the plan is determined, Newsome said.

Understand the “why”

So you’ve painted your picture. Now how do you begin to realize it using these funds?

Newsome said ensuring a bottom-up understanding of the “why” throughout the agency is crucial.

For instance, the organization experienced a snag with paying consultant invoices after it received its COVID-19 funds, largely because the manual workflow involved was inefficient. The challenge revealed two things:

  • The need for a tool to show real-time progress of a budgetary process
  • The need for a consistent understanding of the overall goal

The county met the first need by deploying a modern cloud-based collaboration app. However, not everyone was on the same page about the app’s purpose. This was primarily because they didn’t understand the purpose of the process itself. The team had to remember that the departments they work with aren’t always finance-savvy.

So the key was to conduct change management and clarify the purpose.

“You want to make sure you’re solving problems, not just doing work,” Newsome said. “But that requires you to understand the ‘why’ of what you’re doing.”

That understanding is something the whole organization should have. Otherwise, your modernization initiative, and all the funds you’ve dedicated to it, won’t pan out.

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s guide “Turning Vision Into Reality: How Agencies Can Forever Improve.” 

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

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