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Project Funding Is Not the Enemy

Money is a constant in all work. To start a project, get it off the ground and ensure its success, adequate funding is key. But, receiving that budget is easier said than done.

At the Next Generation of Government Training Summit, Joseph Sutter, Senior Consultant at Deloitte, moderated the panel discussion “Understanding Project Funding.” He was joined by project funding experts Bill Zielinski, Director of the Office of Strategic Programs, Office of Integrated Technology Services, General Services Administration; Michael Bagel, Policy and Program Analyst, Department of Health and Human Services; and Dave Uejio, Acting Chief Strategy Officer, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The three speakers, with backgrounds in project and budget management through both appropriation and other money sources, offered valuable advice on how to handle the three major stages of project budgeting: figuring out your funding needs, getting your request through the appropriations process and making the most of whatever money you end up receiving.

What are your funding needs?

When faced with numerous projects at various agencies within a department, it can be very difficult to determine how much money is necessary to keep the divisions running. Furthermore, it is virtually a guarantee that your department will not receive its total ask, so being able to prioritize one program over another is absolutely critical.

To handle these challenges, Zielinski recommended strategic planning. Agencies should be thinking about what they want to accomplish in one month, two months, a year, five years and every further out to determine the funding required to complete their goals. Uejio echoed this sentiment and emphasized that budgets play a strategic role. “Budgets are primarily articulations of agencies’ priorities,” he said. The clearest way to tell what an agency is focused on is by looking where they spend their money.

Ultimately, your agency must be able to demonstrate that your spending will be useful and productive to have a chance at getting your request fulfilled. The best way to ensure this is to align your plans with actual problems. Uejio explained that in an ideal world, the budget should be set by a rigorous discussion about what problems are trying to be solved, what a successful solution would look like and how the effectiveness of the solution can be measured. By approaching your request from this perspective, your proposed budget will certainly be in line with your agency’s needs.

What complicates getting your request granted?

The budget process is rarely simple, regardless of where you get your funding. Little is more complicated than the congressional appropriation process. According to Bagel, it consists of three main steps. First, budgets must go through the appropriation process. Agencies are required to turn in budget requests to departments, which then consolidate these into a single, department-wide request that is passed along to the White House and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). This helps the administration to put together their budget proposal, which still has to be sent to Congress where it often changes substantially.

After the budget is finalized, departments and the OMB determine apportionment. In this stage, the budget afforded to a department is divided amongst different agencies and different time periods. The total amount apportioned to all agencies cannot exceed the original appropriation. Finally, each agency actually gets a chance to start spending this money in support of projects. This process generally requires authorization from higher officials within the agency, and is called an allotment.

“Articulated needs, and the money required to carry them out, will far exceed the moneys available to do them,” Zielinski said. Unfortunately, this means that agencies often receive less than they had hoped. If your agency doesn’t get the amount they asked for, the best response is to be creative in finding other funding sources, both within the agency and outside it.

How can you effectively use the award you received?

Once your budget has been finalized, it is finally time to start spending those precious resources that you’ve been allotted. But, this spending is rarely condition-free. Establishing a consistent system for accountability is critical, both to demonstrate your own return on investment and to show your department, OMB, and Congress that your performance is worth funding.

It’s important to remember that although the budget may not be exactly what you hoped it would be, it can still benefit your programs. “When you get your budget, it’s great on day one but on day two you want to throw it in the trash,” Bagel joked. In all reality, a budget is your blueprint and you’ll have to be flexible and make adjustments, he explained. By sticking to clear objectives and deliverables, you can make sure the money is put to good use.

All the panelists agreed that good planning and a willingness to adapt your plans and think outside the box will go far in easing the project funding process. By staying tough, being strategic and remaining flexible, project managers can survive the budget process, despite its complicated nature.

This blog post is a recap of a session that took place at the recent Next Generation of Government Summit. Want to see more great insights that came out of NextGen? Head here.

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