Successful Local Gov Internships Part 3: Budget Request Evaluation

Posted on November 5, 2020

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This is the final part in a three-part series about designing successful local government internships. This series is authored by Pat Madej (LinkedIn | Twitter) and Molly Gaskin (Email | Twitter). We spoke briefly in our GovLove episode about Molly’s evaluation of our budget request forms which served as her flagship summer internship project. This post dives a little deeper into how we approached it. Read part one and part two of the series. 

Step 1: What are we doing?

The project began with an idea at the beginning of the FY21 budget season—a few open-ended questions were added to our budget request form asking departments to relate the request to the Durham community in different ways:

  • How does your budget request represent Durham community needs?
  • Did you involve stakeholders in this request and who are they?
  • What impact or outcome might this request have on the Durham community?
  • What impact might this have on your department?

We also asked departments how performance measures related to their request, in an effort to understand how data-driven their requests were.

Evaluating the budget form using responses to those questions became Molly’s summer-long project.

Step 2: Start with the end in mind

Like we mentioned in our GovLove episode, a lot of work went in up front to make sure that combing through 90 budget request forms would be a fruitful effort. In order to attempt to measure how much departments invoked equity, Molly used previous research compiled in the City from various sources to come up with a definition of “equity” she could apply for this purpose. Our criteria for this purpose ended up being responses which:

  • Considered impact
  • Considered community access and engagement
  • Mentioned historical community issues and approaches to mitigate those issues
  • Mentioned an underserved or marginalized demographic

On the performance measure front, with the help of our office’s Performance Manager, Shari Metcalfe, we came up with a scale that would let us rank how well departments used performance measures in their requests. This scale ranged from 0 (no measures listed) to 5 (measures described with projected changes to data as a result of the request being granted).

With these tools in hand and a good playlist in the background, Molly dove into the bulk of the work which involved gathering data from all of our forms.

Step 3: Analysis

After learning about what every department in the City wanted in their budgets for FY21 and pulling out the information we needed, Molly got to coding the results.

At a high level, we found that most departments responded to the four community-related questions by talking about improving service levels. Equity was invoked in a smaller number of requests than this, and this is something we will be exploring in the future as we further develop our budget form and determine what information we need to collect from departments.

On the performance measure questions, we found that over half of our departments at least hit a level 2 on our scale, which means they at a minimum listed performance measures relating to the City strategic plan. This became a natural benchmark we will use going forward in evaluating how departments use performance measures in their requests.

Step 4: Figure out what’s next

We are still early in the stages of figuring out how we will use this information to inform our next budget process. With the question in mind of what we want to learn about departments’ budget requests at the end of this next budget cycle, we’ll continue to modify our form to make sure we’re asking the right questions to get information we can use to better design our form in the following cycle. Thanks to this summer internship, we’re a lot closer to this goal and Molly gained some great experience on an important project while learning about every City department’s priorities – a win for everyone!

Molly Gaskin is a second-year Master of Public Administration candidate at the UNC School of Government and research assistant for the ncIMPACT Initiative. You can connect with her on Twitter @themollophone

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