In her new book, Dr. Katherine Willoughby discusses ways in which public performance budgeting improves government function through survey and case study analyses of state juvenile justice agencies. Willoughby collaborated with colleague Elaine Yi Lu, Professor of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

While there is no one way to legislate or conduct performance budgeting, these systems attempt to align agency missions and strategic plans, with services and budgeted resources, engaging measurement to track program results.  For example, if a police force that used performance budgeting included the protection of lives of their citizenry in their mission, they would also include that action item in their services, allocate funds for that purpose in their budget, measure lives protected, and then compare the metric over time to understand return on investment.

Willoughby and Lu started research for their book project by conducting a survey of top officials from state juvenile justice agencies, asking how they engaged the practice across different phases of the budget process.  

They then narrowed their sample to only states that have legislated the use of performance budgeting, reaching out to respondents for telephone interviews. Nineteen officials from fourteen states responded, supplementing the quantitative data from the online survey with qualitative data to provide needed context.

Willoughby explained that this project was developed as a way to contribute to the scholarship available on performance budgeting. “A lot of research about performance budgeting in governments focuses on the budget development phase.  Agencies include performance data in their budget requests to validate spending needs and plans, but there’s very little follow up to determine return on investment once the budget is executed.” She continued, “That’s why we wanted to extend the research and dig deeply into a particular type of public service.”

The researchers found that most states that use performance budgeting are applying it in multiple ways such as for human resources management, progress tracking, and budgetary decision-making.

Willoughby states, “In its most useful form, performance budgeting impacts policy before it impacts the budget. It tends to influence policy evolution over time.  Agencies use metrics to find out what’s wrong, which helps to redirect policy, which then guides future budget needs and allocations.”

Willoughby and Lu conclude that although people often criticize budgeting reforms because they do not see immediate fiscal change in budgets, reforms do make a difference over the long term, especially by guiding toward better policy.

This research has big implications for juvenile justice agencies, which are currently managing a significant shift from incarceration of youth to community rehabilitation or “natural care.” Willoughby notes that this shift, while more closely addressing the needs of youth in state justice systems, puts new budgeting strains on the agencies.  That is, incarcerating fewer youth increases costs of confinement—the lights still need to be turned on and the personnel engaged to manage facilities and those confined. But, the costs of natural care are substantial as well, necessitating medical, behavioral, educational and other treatments of youth in their home communities. Thus, application of performance budgeting may certainly improve return on investment—more youth return home and have the chance to become active and productive individuals—yet budgets are not necessarily reduced.  Agency personnel must remain vigilant in changing the conversation about how performance is interpreted—from simply reducing costs to improving return on investment.

Willoughby and Lu are continuing with this research by delving more deeply into budgetary changes evidenced in juvenile justice programs over time in Texas and Florida, where performance budgeting laws are long standing.  Additionally, Willoughby is shifting her attention to a new book project investigating how local governments budget for disasters. This book, with co-authors Sarah Beth Gehl, Research Director of the Southern Economic Advancement Project at The Roosevelt Institute, and Komla Dzigbede, Assistant Professor at the University of Binghamton, New York, investigates  ways local governments are planning, or not planning, for crisis in the wake of increasingly frequent natural disasters and decreased budgeting capacity of FEMA.

“Public Performance Budgeting: Principles and Practice” is currently available through Routledge press and “Public Budgets and Crises: Local Governments, Disasters and Dollars,” will be out next year.