Federal budget managers stay upbeat despite challenges

Despite increasing financial pressures, federal employees in charge of agency budgets are fairly satisfied with their jobs, according to a new survey by a professional association and consultancy.

The American Association for Budget and Program Analysis and Grant Thornton LLP questioned more than 200 federal budget professionals and found 38 percent are satisfied with their jobs and another 33 percent are very satisfied.

"Budgeteers love to be in the trenches, dealing with some of the most critical issues of our day, including the fiscal sustainability of the government," said Jon Stehle, president of AABPA.

The survey -- released Wednesday -- garnered responses from every federal department and several independent agencies, with more than 60 percent of participants working at the senior level.

When asked about their methods for making program cuts, nearly three quarters said they would target activities with low priority and 43 percent said they would look at programs with poor performance. Still, roughly half said complying with Office of Management and Budget guidance for making cuts is difficult because they see everything their agency does as important. Respondents identified several additional challenges, including a need for modern financial systems, complying with last-minute guidance and a lack of strategic plans. An agency's strategic plan should be the basis for the budget, they emphasized.

"Budget execution is not accounting," one respondent said. "It is continuously adjusting the budget for changes to ensure that the agency accomplishes whatever it originally promised in its budget request."

Sixty percent of survey participants strongly emphasized that they want to work cooperatively with Congress, but dealing with an often gridlocked House and Senate caused problems for them.

During the past decade, Congress' failure to pass appropriations bills before the end of the fiscal year has required many federal agencies to operate under continuing resolutions for at least a short time. Often, the stopgap funding measures lasted for less than three months, but occasionally the resolutions have lasted longer. Nearly three quarters of respondents said operating on a longer CR was difficult, because uncertainty over funding disrupted, delayed or stopped some operations entirely. Only 43 percent said operating on a CR of less than three months was difficult. While CRs can halt agency operations, many surveyed said the stopgap measures are getting easier to handle since they are becoming more commonplace.

Preparing budget submissions for Congress often proved challenging because of the long time horizon involved. Sixty-three percent of respondents said planning 18 months in advance was difficult.

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