Category: Administration (page 1 of 2)

Citizen Engagement in the Budgeting Process

There has been a lot of interest in how to tighten up the relationships between citizens and their local governments.  At the local level there is a lot more opportunity to work with and get feedback from citizens. This is accomplished by many communities and in various ways.  I believe, and I know this will be shocking, that the budget is the single best place to engage citizens.  The budget is the encyclopedia of government.  The budget reflects what government does and reflects priorities based on spending decisions, as well as changes in the community as reflected in changes in the budget from year to year.

***I love this quote from a VP debate in 2012. 1) It is true. 2) It is hilarious because we are living in a time of continuing resolutions rather than budgets at the federal level, so I guess we prioritize not making hard decisions and not working together.***

I also believe that some of you are groaning because citizens can make the process more difficult and complicated, the concern for the squeaky wheel gets the grease comes to mind, and that the citizen input we get may not be well informed, representative, or even reasonable.  I get all that, but still… there are ways we can engage with citizens in a meaningful way.

In North Carolina, for example, not only will we post our budgets online we also are legally required to have a budget hearing.  Of course, the budget is often adopted immediately (or shortly) after that hearing.  This suggests that the citizen input may not have shaped the budget too much. While this sounds like I am coming after you all I want to be clear, your concerns are fair and often the reality.  It is true that at town halls and budget hearings we may get primarily the citizens that are upset about one thing like a pothole or property taxes and they may not understand the scope of government and may not be well informed—and almost always they are mostly concerned with things that directly affect them and may not be thinking of the entire community.  Does that mean we abandon the the notion of citizen input?  Are there ways beyond the typical budget hearing and town hall that we can engage with citizens that may lead to better results?

Well let’s back up and get on the same page.  What even is citizen engagement?  I think a reasonable way to think about it is to say that citizens and communities are engaged when there are a series of connections between citizens and their governments on policies, programs, and service issues and decisions.  These connections can be in the form of information sharing, consultation, and in some cases active roles in decision-making.  Of course, it also depends who you ask.  There is evidence that on one end of the spectrum elected officials consider their election and lack of complaining as a sign engagement and satisfaction in contrast to the other end of the spectrum to citizens who view engagement to be a two-way communication where they can be involved in the process.  Right in the middle are practitioners who often see educating citizens about government so that they can be community advocates and help explain to their fellow citizens the tough choices government has to make.

All of these are reasonable definitions and reflect that citizen engagement can mean many different things.  I am going to tackle citizen engagement and present it from a framework of three different phases: information, consultation, and active participation.  I will give examples of all of these from here in North Carolina and around the country in some cases.

However, before we get into the fun stuff (or at least the meat of the issue) I want to offer some words of wisdom about citizen engagement.

First, you need to be thoughtful about your community and the diversity in your community.  Most governments that are interested in citizen engagement will implement multiple strategies because not all citizens are the same.  So for example, if you are doing town halls you need to think about transportation issues.  Do you the majority of your residents have a way to attend the meeting?  How about the timing of the meeting, are you excluding a large population because they have family responsibilities or second jobs perhaps?

Oh, so maybe an internet or phone survey is a better way to go! Well… do you live in a community with a large non-English speaking population?  If you are thinking about a survey, you will need to copies available in other languages.  What population of people has landlines these days?  Not the younger population for sure, so that will skew your results.  On the flipside, what about the people without computers at home or who are uncomfortable with the technology?

This is why it is advisable to have multiple outlets for engagement and feedback.  Also, try and be aware if you are not hearing from certain parts of your community.  One strategy could be to reach out to community leaders and ask them how to better reach them or see if there is a meeting or function, you could attend to better integrate those populations.  Sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it… it can be.

This is why you want to make sure that you are being thoughtful about where and how you engage.  You NEVER want to get feedback from citizens that you do not plan on using.  It is a waste of your time and of their time.  Instead of building bridges and strengthening your community it will leave people more frustrated and distrustful.  This is going to be an especially important lesson for the second two phases: consultation and active participation.  Providing information and helping citizens better understand government, the budget, and taxes is not as challenging in this regard (and it can help prevent fiscal illusion!).

Citizen engagement may seem like an uphill battle but there are many great resources out there about how to do it, so do not loose heart!  Ultimately, it is about strengthening your community and as public servants, that is a pretty great ambition!

Come back soon for the next installment on citizen engagement!

Introducing the 2017-2018 Finance Calendar of Duties

The UNC School of Government has just posted its most recent Local Finance Bulletin, the 2017-2018 Finance Calendar of Duties for City and County Officials, prepared by Gregory S. Allison.  This annual publication is a monthly guide for finance and budgeting officials on all statutory and regulatory reporting and administrative responsibilities.  The finance calendar has been a publication of the School of Government for decades and is an online, free resource for finance officers, budget officers, clerks, and other administrative officials.

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North Carolina’s County and Municipal Fiscal Analysis Tool: Research Review

Have you ever used the County and Municipal Fiscal Analysis tool that is housed on Treasurer’s website?  It allows municipalities and counties in the state to see how they are doing with regard to financial condition and compare their performance to peers.  It has recently become the focus of new research coming from colleagues at the University of South Dakota and Indiana University.  Ed Gerrish and Luke Spreen presented their research on our benchmarking tool earlier this month at the Public Management Research Conference and it is forthcoming at the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory.  In this Research Review I am going to discuss their research and pull a few findings that are especially notable for those of you that work in budgeting and finance.

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Communicating and Sharing Information

As this year’s North Carolina Association of Assessing Officers (NCAAO) President, I’ve tried to make good communication one of my priorities. Across North Carolina, we have received appeals from common taxpayers. There are a lot of them. We can call them multi-jurisdiction taxpayers and define them as individual taxpayers with real and personal property in more than one jurisdiction. It only makes sense for that taxpayer to keep track of how each of us responds to appeals. Which of us concede easily? Which of us have accurate data and can defend our values? Are there any counties that do not have the financial or other resources available to defend values?

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Appraisal and Reappraisal. Just Do It?

In late 2014, just after joining the SOG, the NCDOR included me in the initial discussions among assessors about North Carolina’s reappraisal standards. This blog post includes some of the thoughts and questions that I shared with the group at that time. Please keep in mind that this post is written informally, from my perspective during late 2014. I was discussing with the committee, mainly through emails, whether the assessment system our taxpayers deserve was being delivered. On the other side of an inadequate reappraisal, I wasn’t sure our lawmakers in Raleigh would accept an excuse of, “We weren’t given the needed resources”.  I’ll refer again back to this related blog post on ways to request what is needed.

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Crowdsourcing for Local Governments: Research Review

Research Review is a place for me to bring you academic research that I think might be of interest or relevant to you all.  It is not necessarily the Cliff notes of the paper, but it will present some key findings or insights from the paper.

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Are you a Tax Administrator or a Tax Supervisor? Of course you aren’t

Try this online exercise. Go to Chapter 105 of the North Carolina General Statutes. Here’s a link. Once there, most browsers will allow a search feature. A common way to search in many software applications is to press the <Ctrl> key +F. Now search all of Chapter 105 for “tax administrator”. It doesn’t exist. But there are lots of tax administrators in North Carolina, right? Now search all of Chapter 105 for “tax supervisor”. The tax supervisor is referenced 9 times in the Machinery Act. And if you read the context of those references, there are a few important roles involved there. How many counties have a tax supervisor to fulfill these roles?


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There are two sides to every coin: Or is there Common Sense about Cost Accounting in Government?

In the 1990s there was a wave of euphoria about cost accounting and particularly Activity Based Costing (ABC).  One book in particular stands out in my mind as particularly euphoric: Common Cents: The ABC Performance Breakthrough by Stephen Turney.  While it had a clever title, few people remember this book now, but many people remember ABC.  Many finance and budget managers do not recall ABC with fondness.  In fact, when government budget and finance managers are asked about the use of ABC in their organizations now, most will say that they are not using it.  However, when asked if they are doing some form of cost accounting, the measure is much higher.  In this post, I explore why budget and finance managers are willing to say that they are doing cost accounting and not ABC.  I further explore (and mix) the metaphor of common sense/cents about cost accounting by thinking of its uses as two sides of the same coin.

Some background on cost accounting…

Cost accounting is the measurement and use of both direct and indirect cost information for an organizational purpose like rate setting, grant overhead recovery, performance measurement or cost management. For private businesses, cost accounting is essential for pricing goods and services.  In government, cost accounting has many uses as well.  It can be used to price goods as businesses do, to collect overhead for grants, and to improve performance measurement systems.  These are all beneficial uses that are broadly supported by most organizations. The other side of the coin is that cost accounting can be used for intensive cost management purposes, but these uses may generate resistance in organizations. Intensive cost management such as contracting out services and service cutbacks or eliminations can generate resistance from employees.  It is important for managers and budget officers that are looking to use cost accounting for the first time, or more intensively, to consider both sides of the coin and plan accordingly.

The easy side of the cost accounting coin

– Collecting grant overhead

– Accurately price goods or services

– Improve performance management systems

In my research and as described in my forthcoming edited book, cost accounting has many acknowledged uses in government.  The oldest use of cost accounting was to collect grant overhead costs from the federal government as described in the A-87 circular.  The benefit of A-87 cost accounting is that when local governments provide federal services that they should be able to charge indirect costs like HR, IT, and Accounting costs to the grant so that the local government does not have to subsidize services that are most appropriately paid for by the federal government.

Cost accounting also has an important place in accurately pricing goods and services that government “sells” to consumers.  Like federal grants, services that are sold to private consumers need to have indirect costs added into them so that the general tax is not unintentionally subsidizing the service.  Finally, cost accounting is important for performance management systems.  The work of the North Carolina Benchmarking Program most directly speaks to this issue.  Without cost accounting, we cannot be sure if performance differences come from differences in processes that we can learn from or whether they come from simple differences in resources.  Generally, few people inside an organization object to these purposes and may readily assist if they believe that it can be used to generate new revenues for their programs.

The difficult side of the cost accounting coin

– Contracting out services

– Service cutbacks and eliminations

– Overhead cost management


Cost accounting also has some more difficult uses.  I suggest that these are difficult only because they are difficult for people in the organization.  Analysts and managers have told me that people believe that when the government starts collecting data on the “full” cost of services they think that sweet Ms. Betty in Animal Licenses is going to lose her job.  They believe this because cost accounting allows governments to more accurately estimate the benefit associated with contracting or eliminating services.  If we only look at the budgeted costs of a services like animal licensing, we leave out important indirect costs or the budgeted cost is aggregated at such a level that it obscures the individual cost of services.  So, cost accounting can be used to both combine direct and indirect costs and track expenses at a more granular level, which becomes very beneficial for contracting and service analysis.

Cost accounting also often shows that building space, which is an often untracked overhead expense in the budget, is an important cost of services.  If the cost of building space is added into the cost estimate, the service managers often have to justify the high cost of the space for things like storage.  This is something that managers do not want to have to justify and defend.

The improved ability to evaluate contracting, service elimination, and overhead cost management are all important and appropriate uses of cost accounting from the budget officer’s perspective. However, this side of the coin may appear negative from the employee and service manager’s perspective, and organizational resistance may ensue.  Often this resistance is seen in the form of service managers focusing on the excessive time and data requirements of cost accounting.


My common sense suggestions about both sides of the cost accounting coin

The previous discussion of the “other” side of the coin that generates resistance in the organization has suggested why cost accounting (and ABC in particular) has been limited in government.  If the resistance hypothesis is correct, then the next question is what can be done about it? In my forthcoming edited book and in my dissertation (found here: see chapter 3 in particular), I note that the cost accounting used in practice by local governments is not completely an ABC cost accounting system, which may help this problem of resistance and minimize the time and data requirements.  I call this development “hybrid” cost accounting.  These hybrid cost accounting systems are neither very basic or exactly like ABC.  They have a mix of basic and specific cost drivers, the level of cost is passed down to some broad programs and some very specific activities, and that the “fullness” of the system is mixed.  In other words, the systems that are developed and used by cities over time are not purebred ABC systems.  The system is more basic in areas where it is not as important to have a specific activity cost and in areas that generate the most resistance.

Additionally, many cities have found that they have multiple cost accounting systems for different purposes like A-87 cost accounting plans for federal grants and then “full” cost accounting for purposes of setting rates and evaluating the cost of services.  All of this points to the new understanding that there needs to be multiple estimates of cost for the multiple purposes of government.

In conclusion, cost accounting has many significant benefits for government, but we have to use some common sense about our expectations for cost accounting and how it will be received by the organization.  In other words, we need to consider both sides of the coin and especially from the perspective of the service managers and employees. By using hybrid cost accounting systems and multiple cost systems, we may be able to minimize the resistance from the organization and maximize benefits.

Zach Mohr is an Assistant Professor at UNC Charlotte.  He has a forthcoming, edited book on cost accounting titled Cost Accounting in Government: Theory and Applications.  It will be published by Routledge in May 2017.  Links to actual local government cost accounting documents and other useful cost accounting resources can be found on his faculty website.

Mirror, Mirror on the wall, How much revenue will we generate this fall?

Yup, you guessed it, today’s blog post is on revenue forecasting!  My current blog series is about some of the non-legal finance issues that are out there and revenue forecasting, while required by law, is a really important one!  There are many people that are involved with revenue forecasting in local governments. While many outside of government may just assume that there is some accountant or budget wonk sitting in a back room who is somehow magically able (or has some very scientific formula) to predict how much money is going to be coming in next year, we know better.

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Are all North Carolina County Property Tax Appraisers Subject to USPAP?

This is the exact question that I was asked recently.

“Are all North Carolina, county, ad valorem, real estate appraisers subject to the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP)?”

This could be a very short blog post. The answer to the question is, “no”. But a different question, “Should all North Carolina county ad valorem appraisers comply with USPAP?” leads to a more in depth discussion.  The answer to that question is, “yes”.  I believe if you act as an appraiser, you should comply with USPAP.

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