Washington, D.C. — Today the Center for American Progress released a new report finding that federal budget professionals do not have the information they need to make reliable, rational decisions about federal resource allocation. The analysis, based on interviews with a group of experts that altogether had more than 600 years of government service in the field of budgeting, revealed that the nation’s budget system has seriously deteriorated over the past decade. Further, the report found no evidence that the very critical views of those interviewed had been considered in any past budgetary reform efforts.
“It is expected that the results of these interviews will be controversial. The results provide a sharp criticism of the management of the executive branch over the course of recent administrations and perhaps an even sharper critique of Congress over those same years, especially with respect to how Congress has handled its responsibilities for oversight and resource allocation,” said Scott Lilly former staff director of the House Appropriations Committee and co-author of the report. "The interviewees paint a picture of a government that has become very top down in its management style—a government that uses the skills of its experts to justify decisions made by higher authorities rather than as resources for developing more intelligent policies.”
While budget professionals in both the executive and legislative branches are by and large avid consumers of available information on the performances of the programs they fund, none of the individuals charged with properly allocating the nation’s resources felt that they had the kind of quality information necessary to perform their job. A serious impediment to the flow of accurate information is “top-down budgeting.” Some indicated that the executive budget process has become more of an exercise aimed at justifying decisions made at a higher level—without the benefit of complete information—than one that attempts to produce quality information upon which the best decisions can be made.
Beyond the challenge of navigating agency’s agendas, the experts felt that obstacles like small staffs, burdensome data reporting requirements, and a lack of time made it impossible for them to obtain the objective information necessary for them to effectively make budgetary decisions. Department budget directors have seen their teams of planning and evaluation staff whittled away by spending cuts over the years, seriously reducing the availability of basic facts about the performance and effectiveness of various programs within the department. Equally destructive to the budget process are the onerous data reporting requirements that consume the time of the small staffs that remain.
No issue came up more often in the interviews than the question of time. Without time, budget staff cannot demand the information necessary to make intelligent decisions, and without time, they cannot read and analyze such information even when it is made available. Several factors have seriously eroded the time available to government staff for engaging in information-based budget decisions.
The 32 people interviewed for this report expressed brutally frank opinions and there was remarkable unanimity in their views, regardless of institutional affiliation. Yet despite the consensus of critical opinions, there is no evidence that these criticisms have been considered as part of any budgetary reform efforts. Such strongly held views and frustrations should, at minimum, be used to inform and enlighten the next generation of budget reform efforts.
In the coming weeks Scott Lilly will offer several possible solutions to these endemic problems in the federal budget-making process.
Read the report: Broken Budgeting: A View of Federal Budget Making from the Trenches
To speak to CAP experts on this topic, please contact Katie Peters at gro.ssergorpnacirema@sretepk or 202.741.6285.