Note to Budget Professionals: Policy Analysts Support Policy and Operational Decision Making

By Anderson, Janet | Government Finance Review, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Note to Budget Professionals: Policy Analysts Support Policy and Operational Decision Making


Anderson, Janet, Government Finance Review


Citizens continue to expect more public services with the same, if not fewer resources, so public sector professionals increasingly are managing for results and greater efficiency. This means they are looking more comprehensively at policy and operations issues, including clarifying overall service responsibilities, constituting programs and operations involved in carrying out responsibilities, and analyzing and redesigning business processes. These tasks affect, and are affected by, budgets.

For most of my 15 years in the city of Detroit's budget department, I have worked to integrate policy and operations considerations into Detroit's resource planning processes. Detroit's Charter establishes separate budget and finance departments, with a "management audit" function in the budget department to analyze and evaluate operations of all city agencies. Starting my career in the midst one of the city's periodic fiscal crises, I wondered how to prevent downturns, and how the service record could be improved even when times were good, so I took an educational leave to complete a doctorate in policy analysis so that I could perform this function. (1)

Today, public sector budgets must integrate service delivery analysis, and budget decisions hinge on the ability to sort through increased, often competing, information from stakeholders. Activities that tie results management to budgets include: strategic planning, policy design, organizational assessments, program design and evaluation, business process improvement and reengineering, performance measurement, and reporting. Some jurisdictions house these analytical functions in independent agencies, while most appear to accomplish them ad hoc--such as through consulting contracts, or in operating agency units--if at all. (2)

THE POLICY ANALYST'S TOOLBOX

A policy analyst is trained in a variety of methods to gather, synthesize, and communicate evidence--a skill set that supports these growing requirements well. In an old-style bureaucracy like the city of Detroit, these skills are often misunderstood. Research can be applied rather than theoretical, and every area of government can benefit from the independent and specialized thinking a policy analyst brings. There have been five ways that my training as a policy analyst supports the city of Detroit's resource planning activities.

I. Setting up Planning Processes

A policy analyst is a voice for planning, with the ability to structure a standard process for those decisions that need to occur on a regular basis or in coordination with numerous individuals/departments. The steps that need to be reflected at some point in the process are:

* Assessment of current conditions, assets, and operating constraints

* Development of priority-setting methods, guiding principles and criteria for success, including target benchmarks or measures of success

* Gathering information projecting different asset or operational scenarios

* Articulating a formal official decision: clearly stated, with all its implications, and broadly communicated under the decision maker's authority

* Providing feedback mechanisms to translate activities into improved future decisions

Example: Service Cost Projections

The cyclical nature of Detroit's finances can be aided strongly by strategic planning efforts. Several years ago, I developed an environmental scan tool that compiled the constraints, opportunities, and initiatives facing city agencies to help in overall priority setting. Each agency completed a matrix for each of its services projecting the demand, staffing, and equipment needs they would face over a five-year horizon. The agency scans detailed escalating overhead costs relating to technology and professional service specialization, and identified changing service demands.

The budget department began to project its current structural budget problem around this time. …

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