This scenario will probably sound familiar to many if not most of our readers:
Board members over the course of one or more lengthy work sessions thumb through a massive budget tome consisting of page after page of numbers relating to numerous operational and administrative functions and myriad expense line-items. Provided with little guidance in navigating a hugely complex document, they get bogged down in the details and engage in nit-picking rather than making serious policy choices. Sensing that they aren’t making a fundamental difference in the affairs of the transit authority by working their way through the budget document – and vividly demonstrating that detailed knowledge isn’t necessarily power – they become dispirited, frustrated, and aggravated.
Although this sad scenario is all-too-common, this kind of traditional budget presentation isn’t the only choice a CEO has. A well-designed budget document can be a powerful tool for both policy making and relationship building with key stakeholders of your transit authority. This is the lesson that that Steve Bland, Chief Executive Officer of the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority, teaches in the podcast he recorded for this blog. Working closely with the MTA Board, Steve and his Executive Team developed an overview of the MTA budget submission to Mayor Megan Barry of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County, consisting of four tiers: Tier 1: support to sustain existing core services; Tier 2: short term initiatives that will demonstrate results within the upcoming fiscal year; Tier 3: initiatives that will produce results within the next 2-3 years; and Tier 4: necessary advance work for longer-term initiatives in MTA’s 25-year “nMotion” strategic plan.
As Steve explains, organizing the MTA budget submission by tiers paid off in terms of significant increases in operating and capital funding from the Metropolitan Government. But this innovative budget presentation also served as a tool to strengthen MTA’s working relationship with a preeminent stakeholder, Mayor Barry – communicating loudly and clearly: “We highly value and respect you as a critical stakeholder. We care enough to provide you with the information you need to make informed policy choices, thereby enhancing your influence and making your budget review experience relatively pain free.”
In my experience, a well-designed budget presentation can also serve a critical public education/information purpose – providing the residents of your region with a fuller understanding of your authority’s priorities and services and in the process helping to cement their support. Lack of budget transparency is, in my experience, a leading cause of public distrust and opposition to renewed or increased tax support.