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Budgeteers Join Forces Online to Get More Bang for the Buck

How MAX Federal Community boosts cross-agency collaboration.

Budgeting is often viewed as an arcane profession that projects an image within the federal government not unlike that of IRS auditors in the private sector. Everyone knows the job is important, few want to be one, and no one wants to sit next to them in the lunch room. Yet, they work hard and want to get things right.

Former federal budget officer Doug Criscitello participated in a panel on budget reform recently, in a room packed with concerned finance professionals. He noted: “It is clear the key practitioners in the field are desperate for improvements in a process that has not only failed taxpayers in recent years but has also hindered the ability of government finance professionals to plan and execute the financial management programs of their agencies in a responsible way.”

It may take years before such reforms are possible, but what happens in the meanwhile? Budgeteers live in a pressure-cooker environment: splitting their time between responding to — or generating — data calls, conducting “what if” analyses, and engaging in seemingly endless negotiations. While they would like to see broader reforms, they still have their day-to-day job of ensuring their agency budgets are formulated and executed.

Traditionally the budget world is seen as a closed community. But budgeteers sponsor the largest collaborative environment in the federal government, with more than 148,000 participants from over 180 agencies — far outnumbering the 5,000-strong budget community.

This collaborative environment, called the MAX Federal Community, is used by many other governmental functions to coordinate cross-agency responses — from the implementation of the Recovery Act to responding to the H1N1 pandemic scare, as well as other cross-agency initiatives. It has become an invaluable interagency resource, but that wasn’t its original purpose, at least not for budgeteers.

The George W. Bush administration sponsored a series of “lines of business” initiatives in the early 2000s. These were largely designed to help agencies transition to cross-agency shared services in a number of administrative support functions, such as payroll and financial management. This was intended to both reduce costs and improve the quality of services for the government by having a small handful of providers rather than each agency developing and maintaining their own services.

There have been some important successes, and the Obama administration has provided continued leadership by designating shared services as a cross-agency priority goal. For example, the Human Resources Line of Business calculates that its customers saved $1.6 billion over the past five years by moving to shared services and will continue to save about $180 million a year.

In 2007, officials in the federal budget community petitioned the Office of Management and Budget to be included as a line of business — but not necessarily as a shared service. They wanted to work more collaboratively as a professional network across agency boundaries in order to share information on best practices, improve business processes, and identify technology tools that make it easier to get things done and save time.

This online collaborative network became a cutting-edge platform. Called the MAX Federal Community, it is a cloud-based content and document-sharing capability using a combination of open source, open standards, and commercial off-the-shelf components. Together, they comprise a suite of capabilities consisting of more than 40 tools, products, and services for the budget community. These include data collection and tracking, analytics with BI dashboards, integrated document production, survey tools and online training modules, to mention a few. The network continues to evolve, based on the needs of the community. It now hosts online meetings, shared desktops, and a governmentwide directory of contact points who are responsible for performance data, apportionments, and agency “passbacks” from OMB on budget formulation.

So how did the MAX.gov web platform grow beyond budgeteers? Other federal communities asked to use the platform — such as acquisition, financial management, grants management, and information technology — and then it started to be used by program activities as well. Today, any federal employee can join and participate in communities beyond budget.

The Budget Formulation and Execution Line of Business is sponsored by OMB and the cross-agency Budget Officers Advisory Council. The managing partner is the Education Department, whose budget office is well-respected across government. It is jointly funded by 26 participating agencies on a completely voluntary basis. A steering committee meets twice a year to review performance, plans and spending, and recommends priorities to the council.

The budget line of business has evolved into three areas of activity:

1. Studies

The community has developed a series of studies on best practices and developed process maps. For example, the budget community worked with the financial management community to map out how budget execution processes flow into financial management processes and who are the players and their roles. This allows agencies to see how different agencies handle similar processes. The community has also prepared multiple editions of a Consumer Report-type study on different budget systems.

2. Career Development

Community members have taken the process maps and developed online courses around different parts of the budget process, including budget formulation (6 modules), budget execution (7 modules), and appropriations law (3 modules). These bite-sized training courses are like YouTube videos and have been viewed by more than 6,700 participants.

The online courses are supplemented with webinars and monthly in-person panel sessions to talk about a particular topic, such as appropriations law, in off-the-record sessions with senior officials. In addition, the community has developed a budget professional’s career roadmap, outlining six core competencies including self-assessment modules, so staff can develop training plans (e.g., courses for financial modeling and forecasting).  Semi-annual professional training seminars are sponsored by community members with up to 250 attendees. As one community member noted: “There are incredible things to learn about this arcane discipline and this used to costs thousands of dollars from outside contractors to learn.”

3. Technology

Agencies have developed their own analytic budget tools and data collection techniques, but the MAX collaborative sharing environment allows other agencies to replicate them quickly for themselves. As noted above, the site provides about a dozen tools for budgeteers that encompass collaboration, document management, data collection, analytics and BI, document production, surveying and knowledge management. The MAX Collect tool is uniquely tailored to the needs of budget offices that must conduct hundreds of governmentwide and agency-level data calls annually —for example, on the impact of continuing resolutions and sequestration or tallying agency travel and conference costs in response to congressional requests. The tool shows which offices need to respond, who needs to review the responses, status of reviews, and helps identify bottlenecks.

The community has also developed a cross-agency inventory of budget systems that includes planning, formulation, and apportionment tools being used by various agencies.

The website has led to a series of collaborative relationships in the budget community that never existed in the past. For example, it lists the points of contact in agencies for passbacks, A-11 data entry, performance data and apportionments. This allows these contacts to create communities of interest for their specific issues and, more importantly, ensure the right people are attending the right meetings.

The community has been recognized with awards, largely for the website’s access to broader governmental uses. Honors include ACT-IAC’s Excellence.gov awards, Federal Computer Week’s Fed 100 and Rising Stars programs, and the ComputerWorld Honors Program. But contributions to the professionalization of the budget community, and better coordinated processes and technology, have not been in the limelight. Nevertheless, the budget community itself recognizes the value of its line of business.

Budget Officers Advisory Council Chairman Christopher Johns, who is the Energy Department’s budget officer, says he and his fellow budgeteers see continued incremental development of tools for better collaboration among its members, especially in assembling and using big data sets. Johns says he is “encouraged by the work that is going on” and foresees the budget community continuing to lead these collaborative efforts quietly — which has long been a key attribute of budget officers.

(Image via Tolga TEZCAN/Shutterstock.com)

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