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Top Advice to help Federal Workers Navigate the 2016 Budget Process

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I was invited to appear last week on Federal News Radio’s Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss the next steps in this year’s budget process. It got me thinking about how the process will flow over the next several months and what advice I’d give Feds about how to navigate this year’s budget battles. So, what follows are five pieces of advice I recommend you heed as we head into the ups and downs of another broken budgeting season.

  1. Do your holiday shopping early because December looks once again to be a very busy month. Notwithstanding possible Congressional concurrence on its first budget resolution since 2009, the 2016 budget process will likely become a highly charged political argument about the Nation’s fiscal direction. So expect plenty of debate about whether, how and when to balance the budget. But after all that posturing, the Congress and White House will agree to fund 2016 activities, albeit at constrained levels, in an end-of-year compromise and will defer consideration of structural fiscal balance until the 2016 election.
  2. Get ready for another debt ceiling showdown in the Fall. Keep in mind the limit has been reached and extended many times before. Failure to extend would require the Administration to either ignore the limit or prioritize payments (i.e., active cash management). Alternative approaches are possible: Fund Deficits, Not Accumulated Debt. We really need to fix this once and for all, perhaps as part of broader budgetary reform.
  3. In the true spirit of opening day, play Moneyball to show which programs are worthy of taxpayer dollars. Warm up first: start with programs with good data. Use a limited approach for a few budget cycles and then scale up. And get a good umpire, perhaps a dispassionate third party with detailed knowledge of agency’s programs (IGs, PIOs, CFOs, etc.). Then make sure you catch the easy pop-ups – redundant programs have got to go. Government is notorious for having too many agencies play the same position. They should be using data and analytics to unwind duplication. Finally, don’t let one at-bat make or break your season; one of the best ways to innovate is to learn from mistakes. And keep looking for ways to improve your team. See moneyballforgov.com for more info.
  4. Expect a more active Congress – at both the appropriations and authorization levels – and more requests and hearings than normal. The budget resolution will provide a clearer starting point and funding levels for appropriations committees. But authorizers may be given reconciliation instructions to achieve savings, which will set off another set of committee hearings and mark-ups.
  5. Become a budget wonk or build bridges to the budget community no matter where you work in an agency. Budget plays a critical role in running government and funded programs are the way you achieve your mission. Commit to understanding the process to avoid pitfalls that could prevent you from achieving your goals. Although the budget process is complex by design, requiring buy-in from multiple executive branch and legislative branch stakeholders, it is essential to understand it and to know how to influence it.
Even though the process is, by all accounts, broken, the budget is still critical to government employees eager to achieve something on behalf of the American people. Making the most of the budget process can go a long way toward helping you do more with less.

Doug Criscitello is a Managing Director at Grant Thornton Public Sector, who recently assumed the position of Executive Director of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology's Center for Finance and Policy.