Magazine article Government Finance Review

A Small City's Dashboard Innovation

Magazine article Government Finance Review

A Small City's Dashboard Innovation

Article excerpt

Municipal staff in rural and suburban villages, towns, and cities have to be generalists. Larger municipalities have individual departments that handle budgeting, treasury,accounting,grant management, and so on, but in small cities, all of these functions are handled by one or two people. There is also a very small taxpayer base to pay for even small increases in the municipal budget. And of course revenue sharing from county and state sources has evaporated. Small communities are increasingly required to shift the burden,cut costs, or make do.

But the residents of these small jurisdictions still want high levels of municipal service (while simultaneously calling for stable or reduced tax rates and increased administrative access, responsiveness, and transparency). In addition, increasingly sophisticated and complex administrative requirements for financial reporting, pension reporting, health care, payment processing, grant tracking, etc. can be overwhelming to small-town staff.

Internal innovation may not always be the most cost-effective solution, but it should always be examined as a possibility rather than dismissed by default, especially by communities with limited financial resources. A municipal culture that is accepting of potentially unconventional ideas can foster unexpected solutions. By understand and making use of the web-based tools at hand, The City of Spring Breeze, Florida, was able to address one important area- improved financial transparency-by creating high-quality dashboard material at minimal financial cost.

TECHNOLOGY TO THE RESCUE?

Technology is a double-edged sword for small municipalities. The ability to use networks and software to increase individual productivity certainly helps keep total staffing costs from growing. But, given the limited funding base, it can be difficult to find funding for hardware and software, as well as the ongoing incremental maintenance and support costs. In small organizations, technology helps the existing staff do more, but since staff members wear so many hats, it rarely, if ever, justifies staff reductions.

The choices often seem limited to either increasing costs to engage the necessary expertise (e.g., staff, consultants, outsourced services and software) or reducing the scope of services and benefits offered. But there is a third option: developing internal skills that can foster innovation.

It may be true that "you can't manage what you can't measure," but small, innovative organizations understand that measurement alone is not enough. Staff members are most likely to innovate when they thoroughly understand the capabilities of the tools they have available. Productivity increases when you do more with what you have, not when you repeatedly pay more to do more.

THE CASE OF GULF BREEZE, FLORIDA

Gulf Breeze serves approximately 5,900 residents. The city runs the water, sewer, and gas utilities, and operates its own police force and volunteer fire department as well as public works and extensive parks and recreation facilities (waterfront, fields and community center). Its four square miles comprise 46 miles of streets; 2,000 households; elementary, middle, and high schools, all run by the county, and a few small retail strips, along with two major medical facilities. Elected officials, a mayor and four councilmen, serve for a dollar a year, and day-to-day operating responsibilities are handled by a full-time city manager. Despite Pensacola's long history (it was initially settled in 1559), the area that is now Gulf Breeze was largely undeveloped until the 1950s. The city council is proud of keeping property tax rates among the lowest in the state, an achievement made possible by city staff's focus on effectiveness, efficiency, and innovative and adaptive service systems.

Gulf Breeze has repeatedly undertaken atypical, if not iconoclastic, actions to work with and serve its community, ignoring what a city "should do" and focusing instead on "what's needed and what can we do? …

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