The City of Glendale's budget liaison program.
"Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."
Local governments throughout the United States and Canada have begun to recognize the value of cultivating an active volunteer program within their community. Cities are progressively utilizing unpaid volunteers to assist in a number of significant capacities. In the City of Glendale, Arizona, the concept of volunteerism has been taken a step further: through its Budget Liaison Program, the city offers interested city employees an opportunity to volunteer their time and expertise in the city's annual budget preparation process. The volunteers, as well as the city, benefit from this experience, gaining an insider's view of the organization's decision-making process, developing new management skills, and receiving the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities from outside the confines of their own departments.
Necessity Is the Mother of Invention
The Budget Liaison Program was initially formed out of necessity. Prior to the 1970s, Glendale was a small, agriculture-based community. Located 10 miles west of Phoenix, its growth rate since 1970 has been very rapid, dramatically outpacing other communities throughout the state. Between 1985 and 1995 its population doubled. With its 175,000 citizens, an expanding commercial base in technology and telecommunications, and the recent annexation of Luke Air Force Base, Glendale is now the fourth largest city in the state and the fourteenth fastest growing city in the nation.
Most of this growth in Glendale has occurred in newer, undeveloped areas of the city that require major financial investments to create the infrastructure needed to support mushrooming residential and commercial service demands. In the early 1990s, the Glendale city government was feeling the effects of the protracted economic recession that plagued cities throughout the southwest. The combination of low revenue growth and increasing service demands placed a significant financial strain on the city.
To resolve short-term budget deficits and to insure its continued financial stability, the city council and city manager undertook a long, hard review of existing staff levels. For the first time in its history, the city made the difficult decision to downsize. To avoid any future fiscal problems, the city also adopted a highly restrictive approach toward adding new positions or filling vacancies.
In 1989, the city's budget department was small and the director searched for a way to meet its steadily growing workload without hiring additional permanent staff. As in most budget departments, demands on staff vary substantially during the various cycles of the budget process. The department's most pressing need was to augment its resources during the labor-intensive period from January to May, when the department prepared the city's annual budget. The Budget Liaison Program was created to address this need.
How the Liaison Program Works
In June, just before the fiscal year begins, the budget department initiates the critical process of selecting two or three qualified volunteers from other departments to act as budget liaisons for a one-year period. In the early years of the program, the budget department consulted city deputies, program directors, and its own staff for recommendations and then recruited candidates. Now that the program is well-established, the department simply posts--an announcement requesting that interested volunteers contact the department. Each year the number of qualified applicants increases as former liaisons recommend the program to their peers.
The budget department interviews and carefully evaluates each candidate to fill the two or three available liaison positions. Usually, budget liaison applicants are motivated individuals hoping to develop new management skills or to advance their careers in city government. The department looks for mature, responsible individuals with the ability to handle challenging and occasionally ambiguous situations that may involve complex, sensitive financial and political issues. While knowledge of finance and budgeting is helpful, it is not a prerequisite for selection. Volunteer budget liaisons have included employees from the departments of planning and zoning, police, fire, public works, risk management, finance, purchasing, utilities, recreation, and the city manager's office. Each of these employee volunteers brought back to his or her department extensive knowledge on the Glendale's budget policies and process.
Adequate preparation and on-going support are essential for budget liaisons to effectively perform their functions. Orientation begins with a one-day retreat at the beginning of the fiscal year, where the budget liaisons receive an overview of the budgeting process. Their roles and responsibilities in the process are defined clearly for them. The budget liaisons then attend two or three of the regular weekly budget staff meetings each month. In addition, informal assistance is always available on an as-needed basis from the budget liaison's mentor or other budget staff. A one-day exit and evaluation retreat and a brief, written manual were added to the training program in 1995.
Each liaison is assigned budgetary responsibility for specific departments and programs under the general direction of a permanent department staff member. It normally takes about two months for a liaison to reach the competency level expected of a budget liaison. Liaisons will work closely with their assigned department mentor until they have the skills needed to function as full-fledged members of the budget team.
Once they have achieved the necessary skill-level, liaisons will monitor and support their assigned departments throughout a fiscal year. Their duties include the continuous tracking of current budgets, transferring appropriations, analyzing financial data, and summarizing budget requests to the senior management and the city council. Budget liaisons assist their departments in the analysis of their current year interim budgets and in the development of the next annual departmental budget. They ensure that their assigned departments have correctly and accurately entered data into the budget information system database in accordance with the council goals and the policies and procedures established by senior management for the coming year.
From July to December, liaisons spend an average of four hours per week on budget-related activities with the time commitment increasing to a maximum of 32 hours per week during budget balancing sessions, as illustrated in Exhibit 1. Each liaison's supervisor agrees in advance to adjust the employee's workload during these peak periods of activity.
[Exhibit 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
The combined workload accomplished by the liaisons is comparable to one full-time equivalent management assistant. About 725 work hours are contributed by each liaison in one fiscal year, resulting in an average combined total of 2,175 hours per year. With the exception of peak periods during the budget process, liaisons generally can perform liaison duties in addition to their normal workload.
Benefits of a Win-win Program
The use of budget liaisons has become an integral part of the budget department's long-range strategy for providing more efficient, effective and economical budgeting methodologies that will support Glendale's growing operation and planning needs. The Budget Liaison Program has evolved into a permanent component of the city's professional staff development program and a powerful interdepartmental team-building tool.
During the past five years, the city had to reduce available monies for staff professional development. The liaison program has become a valuable staff developmental and job enrichment tool. The Budget Liaison Program functions as an in-house training instrument for employees to learn new skills while offering the city a more effective use of limited resources through teamwork.
In 1991, when Glendale was faced with increased service demands during a period of severe financial constraints, the Budget Liaison Program proved its value, enabling the budget department to sustain its required level of productivity despite budget cuts and staff layoffs. The program has saved more than $250,000 during its six years of successful operation.
Thus far, 14 employees have participated in the liaison program. This year three new liaisons are hard at work helping three full-time professional budget staff develop the 1996-97 annual budget and earning their stripes as Glendale budget liaisons.
The initial purpose of the Budget Liaison Program was to offset the cyclical nature of the department's workflow while continuing to maintain a small centralized budget staff. In addition to facilitating the annual budgeting process, however, the substantial contribution of the budget liaisons permits the budget director and the existing budget staff the time to perform more extensive and complex analyses.
Participating departments throughout the organization have benefited from the extensive knowledge and understanding of the budget process that budget liaisons take back to their departments. When liaisons return to their home departments, they bring with them a better understanding of the importance of budgetary accountability, principles, and practices. As a result, their internal department's budgeting procedures improve, and the overall budgeting process becomes more efficient.
The close working relationships and lasting friendships developed as a result of the liaison program increase understanding and trust between the budget office and other city departments. This trust helps to improve the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the city's budget process.
Prerequisites for Success
The Budget Liaison Program is flexible, cost-effective, and can be adapted for use in a variety of municipal environments and departments; however, senior management support and cooperation are essential to the successful implementation and operation of the liaison program.
* Top management and department heads must be committed to allowing the liaisons both the time and opportunity to become full-fledged members of the budget team.
* Liaisons must be given meaningful work and the guidance and support to learn and perfect their newly acquired skills.
* The home department and the budget department need to modify their work schedules and expectations to ensure that the liaisons can perform effectively.
* Liaisons also need to be recognized by both departments for their personal accomplishments and special contribution to the organization.
Glendale's Budget Liaison Program has exceeded its initial objective of augmenting budget staff resources during high demand periods. By involving and empowering a broad base of employees in the budget process, the program has improved communication and cooperation between management and employees at all levels of the organization. An effective liaison program can assist any department to more effectively and efficiently achieve its city's goals and objectives.
Liaisons themselves are exposed to the complex fiscal and financial issues and policies of city government they may face as future managers. The program provides a hands-on environment for non-professionals to acquire knowledge and technical skill in applying financial concepts, standards, and techniques in municipal budgeting.
Charles McClendon is director of management and budget for the City of Glendale, Arizona, Paula Moloff is the city s grants administrator, and Jeff Tyne is a budget and management analyst for the city.
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|Author:||McClendon, Charles; Moloff, Paula; Tyne, Jeff|
|Publication:||Government Finance Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1995|
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