Webinar Takeaways: What Makes a GFOA Award-Winning Budget?

August 11, 2017 – OpenGov

The annual budget document is the single most important representation of an agency’s work and priorities. The Government Finance Officers Association’s (GFOA) Distinguished Budget Award Program provides a strong best-practices framework for developing a budget strategically and enabling it to serve multiple functions. Yesterday’s OpenGov webinar, What Makes a GFOA Award-Winning Budget?, featured practical advice from finance professionals who imparted lessons from their first-hand experiences submitting, winning, and reviewing GFOA award-winning budgets.

GFOA’s Distinguished Budget Awards Program

GFOA established the Budget Awards Program in 1984 to encourage high-quality budgets. Kim McCleskey, Budget Administrator of NOVA Parks in Northern Virginia, has been involved with the program since its inception – first as an applicant, then an awardee, and finally a reviewer. She noted how budgets have changed over the years due to both evolving best practices and technology innovations. Along the way, “GFOA set the tone for continued improvement by not just focusing on the numbers in a budget, but by setting forth what a budget should be,” she explained.

As public sector policy challenges have grown more complex, budgeting has become more strategic. As a result, today’s budgets need to be more comprehensive to simultaneously function as a/an:

  • Policy document;
  • Financial plan;
  • Operations guide; and
  • Communications device.

The Budget Awards Program utilizes three reviewers to judge each budget document on these four categories comprised of the 27 specific criteria. As stated in the program’s instructions, “To receive the award, a budget document must be rated either proficient or outstanding by at least two of the three reviewers for all four basic categories, as well as for 14 of the 27 specific criteria identified as mandatory.”

3 Suggestions from McCleskey

McCleskey offered the following advice for agencies applying for the Distinguished Budget Award:

  • Apply and reapply. Even if your organization does not win the award initially, continue applying and focus on improving each time.
  • Review other budgets. You can learn a great deal by reviewing other organizations’ budgets – especially previous award winners. Discover and emulate their strengths.
  • Respond to feedback. Address comments and explain gaps from previous year. This helps provide context for reviewers and demonstrates improvement.

The Value of Applying

When polled, 43 percent of attendees said their organizations had never applied for a GFOA budget award in the past. McCleskey encouraged them and previous applicants to see the value in the submission process – a process that is, at its core, “just trying to make your budget the best it can be.” She urged participants to view the program as one of continuous growth. She suggested that agencies can even spread attempts to meet criteria out over multiple years, working toward a more complete application.

“It’s all about the feedback and the value there,” she said. “Don’t look at the process as a way to get an award. What makes me feel proud is that halfway through the fiscal year, I’ll be in a meeting and see that everyone in the room brought their budgets; well-worn and dog-eared, people are using that document. It’s a living, breathing document that really makes a difference in my agency.”

The Value of the Budget Book

Harford County, Maryland has won the budget award for 28 years. Christen Sullivan, Harford’s Senior Budget Administrator and a Maryland GFOA member, shared her experiences developing the County’s budget document and submitting for the Budget Awards Program. She also believes the quality of the budget book itself is vital to the mission of an organization.

Sullivan said the budget is an important tool for citizens, elected officials, and the budget office itself. For the organization, the Budget Awards Program “forces budget analysts to constantly improve their work, avoid complacency, and take time to make the documents better,” she said.

3 Suggestions from Sullivan

From her experience, Sullivan offered three suggestions to not only aid in the awards application process, but to enhance an agency’s budget for the staff and community itself:

  • Adopt a pro-growth mindset. Acknowledge and learn from feedback and keep moving forward, even with minor suggestions.
  • Streamline the budget book. Make your book beautiful, organized, and useful. Pay attention to the layout and make it easy to navigate using index hyperlinks and attractive pictures that show off your community.
  • Use charts. Visuals that provide context help readers understand the content and keep them reading.

Better Visuals and Process – The Technology Advantage

When asked what would most improve their organizations’ budget document, “Visuals” and “Process” topped the list with 38 percent of attendees selecting each. McCleskey and Sullivan addressed both. Sullivan said, in her experience, keep it simple – the most effective visuals have been bar graphs and pie charts that break down revenues and expenditures.

In her presentation, McCleskey pointed out that innovative technology paired with emerging best practices “became our best friends in better budgeting.” Sullivan reiterated that point when explaining how publishing Harford's annual operating budget, capital budget, and budget-in-brief used to entail the all-to-familiar, cumbersome process of merging spreadsheets into PDF documents. Harford’s team now uses OpenGov Budget Book powered by Wdesk™, which she called “very powerful.” She said, “It is advancing us not only in technology but also in efficiency by providing incredible options for linking to datasets and creating charts and visualizations right in budget documents.” Not only has it helped her agency make a better-looking budget, but it has also made the process more collaborative process.

Watch it Now

If you were unable to join the live webinar, be sure to watch it now for additional takeaways we did not cover here. A related eBook, Best Practices in Local Government Budgeting, is also available for free download. Based on expert insights, it provides communications and operations best practices for delivering a high-quality budget.

Watch the webinar.

Download the eBook.