Ten Ways to Improve the Transparency of the DC Budget

by Jenny Reed and Lindsay Clark | February 26th, 2009 | PDF of this report

      A transparent DC budget – one that provides accurate, clear, and timely information – is critical to promoting a healthy discussion of budget priorities, to enabling the DC Council to perform its agency oversight functions, and to empowering residents to hold public officials accountable for the delivery of public services.  Mayor Fenty’s proposed fiscal year 2009 budget, submitted in March 2008, included changes in the format of budget documents that were intended to provide a clearer budget, with the addition of the new funding tables and new agency performance indicators.  Yet the reaction to the new budget format from many DC Council members, advocates, and residents included notable criticisms, in part because the FY 2009 budget also left out some kinds of information that had been included in prior-year budgets.

     The efforts by the office of the Mayor to improve the transparency of the DC budget are laudable, yet more needs to be done to make the budget accessible.  Many of the problems in the format of the FY 2009 budget are not new, but instead reflect issues that have been on-going for years.  Prior DC budgets consistently failed to allow budget consumers to find even basic information on many programs, including funding history and the level of services provided.[1]

     This means, for example, that a DC resident cannot use the budget to find how much the District spends on beautification projects in his or her neighborhood, such as tree planting.  A children’s advocate cannot find out how much funding is dedicated to the Keys for Life program, which teaches foster children skills to attain self-sufficiency.  And each spring, when the Mayor submits a budget for the upcoming year, anyone wanting to compare the proposed funding for a particular program with this year’s budget cannot perform this simple task with confidence.  This is because the DC budget documents show only initially approved funding for the current fiscal year and do not include any mid-year adjustments, which are common.

     This paper outlines ten key ways the District could work to improve its budget transparency, as early as next year’s budget, based on a review of the FY 2009 Budget and Financial Plan documents.  Some of the suggestions are relatively easy and simply require adding existing unpublished data to budget tables and taking fuller advantage of the web to make more budget information publicly available.  Other changes – such as improving the quality of agency performance measures – are harder and require a thorough review of each agency’s budget format, but nonetheless are achievable and worthwhile.

The ten recommendations – which are discussed in more detail below – are:

  1. Develop meaningful narrative descriptions of each agency’s programs and services
  2. Include narrative descriptions of all new policy initiatives in a proposed budget
  3. Restructure each agency’s budget line items to better match its programs and services
  4. Develop program performance measures for each agency that reflect an agency’s most important services
  5. Expand online budget information, including making “CFO Source” available to the public
  6. Include information on the revised current-year budget when the proposed budget for the upcoming year is submitted
  7. Provide explanations when programs are re-organized or moved from one agency to another
  8. Eliminate the double-counting of funds that are transferred from one agency to another
  9. Improve the reporting of funds in “special purpose” accounts
  10. Improve the reporting of expenditure of federal funds

     Public input on any changes to the budget format is critical to ensuring that the process results in a more common-sense budget that can be readily understood by residents.  This report recommends that all major changes in the budget format should be submitted in draft form for public comment before being adopted.

Click here to access the PDF of the full report (32pp.)


[1] Ed Lazere, “Improving the Transparency of the DC Budget,” DC Fiscal Policy Institute, July 2002.