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What Elected Officials and Citizens Want To Know

Local government is rapidly transitioning to an environment wherein citizen expectations for public programs are higher than at any other point in history. Due to lagging economies funding is tight and will become even more contracted as competing services are driven by multiple challenges related to population growth/ demand, growing operating costs, conflicting priorities and deteriorating infrastructure. As demand for services grows, public scrutiny, competition for limited resources, the complexity of regulations, and the need to sustain fundamental program quality will escalate.

To succeed in the context created by these competing and very complex variables, public agencies must commit to internal operations founded on principles of financial accountability, exceptional quality, consistent performance, and meaningful contribution to the community.

The Value of Operations Plans

Our research has shown that far too few public agencies take time to develop and maintain Operations Plans. Quite often, there are no formal (or even informal) internal plans that describe each department and division, what programs they are accountable for, what activities are undertaken, or what basic outcomes are expected. Critically, there are far too few municipal governments that tie performance measures to budget allocation and create a ‘triage’ system based on what services are most essential to sustain an economically vibrant, safe, and harmonious community. Instead, the annual budget appropriation and allocation process is too often a battle among departments that pitches director against director and occasionally elected officials against each other as they collectively grapple with funding priorities.

What Do Tax Dollars Buy?

From a management standpoint every budget is created to fund programs that directly or indirectly serve the public. Very simply, whether a Mayor, Council or Board, all want to know and must be able to explain what is being accomplished for the dollars spent – no different from any business enterprise. Public managers must understand that a preemptive approach to program review and performance is much more powerful and meaningful than a reactive approach. That is, it is always better to report ahead of time what a department, division or program is doing and what it will contribute for the funds allocated. The best approach is reflected in operations planning, wherein managers report:         

  • What services are provided
  • What outcomes or contributions accrue to the community
  • Significant achievements made by the program unit
  • Standards that are being maintained & why they are important
  • Measurement criteria (metrics) used to assess performance
  • Cost-benefit of the programs and services

I work with many public organizations to develop strong operations plans that contain detailed operating systems, processes, and protocols, and include the essential elements listed above. For city and county departments my caution is to never wait for this type of information to be requested. Far too often, required support data is unavailable or is unclear, there is no time to prepare adequate reports, and managers can appear foolish trying to justify program expenditures when there are no performance criteria or formally established expectations. Business is not conducted in this manner – nor should public agencies operate without pre-existing operations plans that clarify what is being done according to what standards and at what cost.

The message is clear…understand the audience and build operations plans to educate officials and fully explain what the community is getting for their tax dollars. Don’t wait to be asked.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

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