Chairman Brown and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to speak today. My name is Jenny Reed, and I am a Policy Analyst with the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. DCFPI engages in research and public education on the fiscal and economic health of the District of Columbia, with a particular emphasis on policies that affect low- and moderate-income residents.
A transparent budget ‘ one that provides accurate, clear and timely information ‘ is critical to helping the public understand how its tax dollars are being spent, and to enable the public and elected officials to hold the District accountable for the delivery of services. I am here today to testify on improvements the Office of Budget and Planning has made to the District’s budget over the past year, and also to provide suggestions for ways to improve budget transparency for the public over the next year.
The Office of Budget and Planning (OBP) has made several improvements to the District’s budget over the past year that have helped improve budget transparency for the public.
- The online FY 2011 budget was organized by appropriations title and also by agency, making it much easier for the public to find all of the relevant budget documents for a given agency.
- The FY 2011 budget included detailed crosswalks to help the public identify budget shifts that were made from FY 2010 to FY 2011 as most agencies were restructured under a new division based budgeting structure.[i]
- The CFO introduced a new online tool ‘ CFO Info ‘ that has great potential to be a rich and useful tool to allow the public to access detailed budget information. We say “potential” because we think they are ways this site could be improved which I will talk about later in my testimony. CFO Info not only allows users to drill down to a particular part of the budget that is of interest, but it also allows the CFO to expand the amount of budget information available to the public. For example, CFO Info includes more detailed spending detail on special purpose funds, the capital budget, and agency spending to date in the current fiscal year than the in the budget books themselves.
Despite progress, there is still room for improvement in the transparency of the District’s budget.
- Current Services Budget. For FY 2011, the CFO began putting together a current services budget. The current services budget provides a look at how much is needed for the government to fund the same programs and services in the upcoming fiscal year as it funds in the current fiscal year. This information can be very useful for the public because they can see how costs are expected to change from year to year and what the current gap between revenues and expenditures is expected to be.
However, the current services budget provides limited information; largely looking at the total change in funding by agency from the previous fiscal year to the current fiscal year. Previously, the CFO issued a very detailed baseline budget that walk through how an agency’s budget would change from year to year including detail on changes to personal services, non-personal services, and fixed costs.
It would improve transparency substantially if the current services budget included the change in current services funding by agency, division, and activity and if it included some detail on why funding amounts increased or decreased in each agency. In addition, it would be helpful to have this budget released earlier in the year, such as by March 1st. Last year the current services budget wasn’t issued until March 24th and so far this year it still hasn’t been posted.
- CFO Info. CFO Info was launched in 2010 and provides online detail about DC’s budget. This tool is useful because it allows users to drill down into a particular part of the budget that is of interest and also allows the CFO to expand the amount of budget information that is available online. For example, CFO Info already contains greater spending details on special purpose funds, the capital budget, and agency spending through the current fiscal year. However, CFO Info could be improved by expanding the amount of budget information available and also making it more accessible and transparent.
- Include more detail on federal funds. Federal dollars can be a large portion of an agency’s budget. The HASTA Administration and Department of Housing and Community Development are examples of two agencies that received significant amounts of federal grant dollars that fund many critical programs. Yet, the DC budget documents contain very little information on federal grant funds. For example, the budget tells you what types of federal grants an agency receives, but not what programs and services the grants fund.
The Office of Budget and Planning could expand the amount of federal grant spending detail through CFO Info similar to how they provided details on how special purpose funds are spent within an agency. This would allow users to see how a particular federal grant was to fund programs and services within an agency.
- Expand table 40 in the Operating Appendices so activities can be tracked by funding source. It would be useful if the public could see not only how programs are funded, by funding source (such as local, federal, or special purpose), over time, but also how activities are funded, by funding source, over time. Table 40 in the operating appendices currently displays this information, but not at the activity level. OBP could expand Table 40 to provide this type of spending detail for activities on CFO Info.
- Make CFO Info more user-friendly. OBP has put a significant amount of budget information online in CFO Info and it has the potential to be an incredibly rich and useful source of budget information for the public. However, in its current format it can be difficult to navigate, especially for a user who many not be very familiar with budget terms or how the budget is organized.
For example, it isn’t easy to directly find a particular agency because CFO Info is organized by appropriation title ‘ and many people do not know which agencies are in which appropriation title. It is also difficult to figure out the steps to determine how much an agency spent on a particular program or activity within the agency in a given year. Most often, programs and services are the areas that the public are concerned about. There is a Tips section with great how-to videos yet they don’t cover how a user gets to a program or service.
DCFPI suggests that OBP convene a working group of stakeholders over the summer to talk through improvements that could be made to the layout, navigation, and user-friendliness of CFO Info.
- Improved and expanded budget detail at the activity level. The activity level detail of the budget is critical for budget transparency because this is where most of the programs and services that are delivered to the public are found. As agencies went through the process of re-structuring into a division-based budgeting structure in FY 2011, the redefinition, reorganization, and further breakout of activities was intended to take place in the FY 2012 budget. With the change in administration and large budget shortfalls, it is not surprising that agencies haven’t had a chance to make those changes to their activities.
We are hopeful however that for the FY 2013 budget OBP and Mayor’s Budget Office can help agencies redefine and further expand their activity level detail in the budget in order to provide the public with greater spending detail that better matches the actual programs and services the agency delivers. We also suggest that they consider reaching to the public to find out what programs and services would be useful to display in the budget.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions.
[i] For more information on changes mane under division-based, see; https://www.dcfpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/4-28-10DivisionBasedBudget.pdf