Meeting DC’s Challenges, Maintaining Fiscal Discipline: Improving the Transparency of the DC Budget


The best way to get a sense of a government’s real priorities is by examining its budget.  Each year’s budget represents the culmination of numerous debates over the use of public resources and a competition among many interests for a limited pot of funds.  This is especially true for DC’s FY 2008 budget, which will be developed by a new Mayor and Council.  Early indications are that growth in DC’s revenues has slowed and that there may be only limited funds for new initiatives

Given the importance of the budget, DC policymakers and residents need access to budget information that clearly makes the connection between dollars spent and services delivered.  A transparent budget ‘ one that provides accurate, clear, and timely budget information ‘ promotes a healthy discussion of budget priorities, enables the DC Council to perform its agency oversight functions, and empowers residents to hold public officials accountable for the delivery of public services.

The DC budget fails to be transparent, however, in many ways.  Budget documents often do not allow residents to gather basic information on key DC programs, including the funding history or trends in the services provided.

The Summer Youth Employment Program, a flagship DC program, offers a clear example of many of DC’s budget transparency problems.  Despite its prominence, there is very little information in the FY 2007 DC budget on SYEP expenditures or services.

  • The DC budget does not show the current budget or historical expenditures information for Summer Youth Employment program, because SYEP is combined with other programs into a single budget line item.
  • The budget line that includes SYEP reflects total funding and does not distinguish between local and federal funds used to support these activities
  • The DC budget provides no information on the number of youth served by the Summer Youth Employment Program in recent years or in the upcoming year.
  • The DC budget does not include a narrative description of SYEP ‘ who it serves or how it operates.
  • The DC budget does not highlight the impact of SYEP funding changes on services provided or the number of youth served.

These issues are discussed in more detail below.

ISSUE 1: Funding information for many programs cannot be found in the budget, because the budget often lumps several programs into one line item.  The Summer Youth Employment program, for example, is part of the "Youth Operations" line item in the DC budget.  This line item includes other jobs programs for youth, though the budget does not specify them.  There is no way to identify the budgets for each of the distinct programs in this line item. 

THE SOLUTION: Budget line items should be re-defined to match individual services and programs.  The Mayor should work with each DC agency to ensure that its budget accurately reflects the major services the agency provides.  This process should be based on input from interested residents, which will result in a common-sense budget structure that identifies funding levels for the services that are most important to the public. 

ISSUE 2: The budget does not break out expenditures for many programs into those supported by local funds and those supported federal funds.   For the “Youth Operations” line item that includes the Summer Youth Employment program, the DC budget provides information on “gross” expenditures ‘ from all sources of funds combined.  Yet tracking budget trends by the source of funds can be very important.  If a program’s funding declines, for example, it would be useful to know whether that stemmed from a decline in federal or local funding.  This information also can be used to assess whether the District is maximizing its use of federal funds.  Finally, because the Mayor and Council control the use of local funds, examining the trend in local funding is a key way to assess the priority given to that program.

The DC budget provides some information that separates local and federal funding, but only for broad groupings of services.  In the case of SYEP, the "Youth Operations" line item is part of a larger "Workforce Development" budget category that also includes training programs for adults.  The DC budget separates federal and local funding for the combined “Workforce Development” category but not for line items within it.   


1) The Chief Financial Officer should modify budget documents (the “Operating Appendices”) to provide local and federal funding information for all line items in the budget.  This probably can be fit into existing budget documents.  If this is not possible due to space limitations, this information can be provided on-line or on compact discs.

2) The District’s internal budget-tracking tool, CFO Source, should be made publicly available.  The CFO has developed a powerful on-line tool to allow users to examine budget information at a detailed level.  Yet CFO Source is available only to a small number of government officials and not to the public.  The Mayor could work with the CFO to allow them to prepare a public version of CFO Source

ISSUE 3:  The DC budget provides little information on the services provided by each agency.  In many cases, the performance information in the DC budget ‘ known as “key result measures” ‘ is very limited.  In the case of SYEP, the budget does not provide on the number of youth participating in the summer jobs program in recent years.  The only measure relating to youth in the Department of Employment Services budget for FY 2007 is the “percentage of youth advancing from one grade level to another (school retention).”  The budget does not explain what group of youth this applies to or how this relates to youth employment programs. 

In addition, the budget offers only one or two years of historical information for each measure, making it difficult to assess long-term performance trends.

THE SOLUTION: The Mayor should work with each agency to re-vamp its performance measures to reflect the key services provided by each agency.  The measures should focus on core agency outputs, such as the number of street lights repaired, the number of sworn police officers, and the number of youth enrolled in the summer jobs program.  The budget should include several years of historical comparisons.  The new performance measures should be developed with public input to ensure that they are most relevant to the agency’s performance.

ISSUE 4:  The budget narratives often do not describe key programs.  Despite the prominence of the Summer Youth Employment program, only a passing reference is made to it in the entire FY 2007 budget.  The FY 2007 DC budget includes just a one-sentence description of the “Youth Operations” line item ‘ the line item that includes SYEP ‘  but it does not mention SYEP. 

THE SOLUTION: The Mayor should work with each agency to ensure that the budget includes a thorough narrative description of its key services.   The mayor’s office should work with each agency to develop budget narratives that accurately describe the services the agency provides.

ISSUE 5: The budget fails to explain the impact of funding changes from year to year.  The introduction to the FY 2007 budget chapter for the Department of Employment Services, for example, notes that funding for SYEP would be increased to double its administrative staff.  The need for this increase and the impact on the program, however, are not explained.  In addition, the budget shows that funding will grow by $1 million in FY 2007 for “training providers and other contractors that support SYEP.”  It is not clear what currently is spent on these services or what the new funding will mean.

THE SOLUTION: The Mayor should work with each agency to highlight funding changes that reflect increases or decreases in services, and it should describe the impact of these changes.   The District’s Chief Financial Officer develops a detailed “baseline” budget every year, which is the amount needed to maintain current services.  In most cases, baseline funding increases from year to year are needed simply to meet growth in basic operations.  The Mayor could work with the CFO to make sure the budget distinguishes funding changes that are baseline in nature and those that reflect increases or decreases in services.