Finding Balance In How We Budget for Government IT

A new report from the Partnership for Public Service discusses some of the challenges of realizing the goals laid out in President Biden’s Executive Order on Customer Experience.

What’s really notable to me is the mention of the critical role budgeting plays in how agencies are enabled to deliver on the promise of better customer service. This is something I have been talking about for a long time.

Program offices may be reluctant to, or even prohibited from, investing jointly in a seamless customer experience. Services designed with the customer in mind must be funded with the customer in mind, which is not the state of play today.

Designing a Government for the People (Partnership for Public Service)

This report rightly points out that governments are not organized to easily provide cross-agency service, with funding for various programs being siloed inside single agencies. But what’s interesting to me about this is not only the impact this approach can have on how agencies deliver services, but why this structure exists in the first place.

When we talk about the government budgeting process, we almost always talk about the first three phases – these are where most of the attention (and tension) comes into play – budget preparation, budget adoption, and budget execution. But the often overlooked fourth phase of the budget process is one reason why cross-agency funding for things like a better customer experience is so hard.

After budget execution comes the auditing phase, where an accounting of the spending that took place occurs to ensure it was within legal parameters. At the state and local level, this role is often conducted by separately elected auditors or controllers. At the federal level, this role is carried out by inspectors general. At each level, the role of this official is to ensure that spending by state or federal agencies is within legal limits and for authorized purposes. (They may also investigate reports of waste, fraud, and abuse in government spending.) To some extent, legislative oversight of executive branch agencies serves a similar purpose, but the affect on how funding is authorized is the same.

Simply put – it’s a lot easier to account for government spending, how much occurred and what it was for, when a single agency is charged with spending funds. It’s the government budgeting equivalent of the “one throat to choke” principle. Spreading funding for programs across multiple agencies involves spreading accountability for that spending as well. And this makes holding individual agencies and officials accountable more difficult.

I believe strongly that many of the processes that impact government digital services that people diagnose as broken are actually working as designed – and this is an example of what I mean. Our current system of funding is not optimized for flexibly supporting digital experiences that cut across agencies but it is optimized for easier accountability of spending that does occur by agencies. And this is not entirely a bad thing – we want agencies to be held to account for how they spend public funds.

The challenge for those of us working to improve government digital services is not to find ways around these processes, but to find ways to work within them. How do we foster better digital services that cut across agencies while still ensuring accountability? This balance of flexibility and accountability is the trick. 

Where we strike this balance will ultimately determine how far along we’ll get to realizing the President’s vision for better customer service.

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