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Budgeting reform needs eyes on implementation to work

It’s a great time to be student of public administration in Louisiana as every politician, appointee, and former official who left their offices both voluntarily and otherwise spout one or the other of every trendy budgeting reform of the past three decades, in order to address large projected state deficits in the near future. But what we don’t hear any specifics about is how it’s going to be done.

We heard a current treasurer advocate a hiring a freeze, a former governor (somewhat contrary to what he actually did in office) stump for zero-based budgeting, a former legislative staffer suggest the derivative of assessing need and then construct revenue packages to match, and the current commissioner of administration expand upon (and thereby connect to its recent outcome-based budgeting initiative) the current (presumed) performance-based budgeting regime. All told, together they covered almost all of the reform ideas that emanated from the academy in the 1960 and 1970s.

But only Commissioner Angéle Davis seemed to grasp the essential truth of the situation when she lamented how the current performance-based system (tying appropriations to performance measured by ability to achieve assessed priorities) was not working well because of a disconnection between actual appropriations and achievement. Instead, the old incrementalist approach – take last year’s budget as a baseline, and then try to increase it from there except in tough times when tactics try to avoid as much decrease as possible – holds sway throughout state government, she asserted.

The point is, you can take a much more rational approach to budgeting that will improve both efficiency and effectiveness in government, but successful implementation of that approach must occur or nothing changes. Therefore, the will to do so must be present, both as the policy-making level and implementation level.

The scope of the crisis may have galvanized the political will, a rare feat in Louisiana’s history. However, as Davis noted, change must happen among those carrying out the new procedures and, believe it or not, that may be still even more difficult to accomplish. Civil servants in the classified service have protection from political personnel decisions built into their jobs which, unfortunately, also serve as great insulation from managerial maneuvers designed to make them behave in a certain way. They will be heavily resistant to any changes in budgeting because the current method is easy and helps protect their jobs.

But, fortuitously, at the prodding of the Davis’ organization, the State Civil Service Commission already has laid the groundwork to push reluctant bureaucrats in the direction of necessary reform. This summer, its decisions to incorporate more merit into reductions in force and more stringent reporting requirements showing the role of merit in pay raises (which may lead to actual merit being used in giving out raises) now give additional valuable tools to prompt performance congruent to reform goals. The word needs to go out that genuine participation in budgeting practices envisioned by Davis and other reformers will count in reviews of higher-level managers for salary increases, and therefore must be expected of their subordinates as well. Further, the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration beyond the idea of targeted hiring freezes and say a few layoffs will occur as well, where fidelity to the new budgeting regime will play a role in determining who must be let go.

These tactics will encourage more coherency and sense into the present budgeting process within agencies, and will pave the way for reform. The ideas being brought forward on the budgeting process are entirely sound. But it is their implementation, which will require a sharp break with past public administration in Louisiana, that will make all the difference whether they succeed in bringing greater efficiency and effectiveness in state spending.

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