Cost Accounting in Local Government

The Legacy of Fads

I started in local government when Planning, Programming, Budgeting (PPB) was introduced as a way to more effectively and efficiently use government resources to meet the needs of constituents. This was my first exposure to a comprehensive program to improve local government management. There followed an unending stream of “begets” – program budgeting, zero-based budgeting, management by objective, performance measurement, productivity improvement, re-engineering, benchmarking, activity-based costing, and the latest priority-based budgeting. Please excuse me if I missed your favorite fad and for feeling jaded as they all sound like good ideas. I’m sure that if your agency is following one of these “begets” that your constituents are better off than before.

The Government Finance Review (June, 2013) printed an interesting observation by Ken Miller and Bill Bott:

“The insights each fad leave behind are what we now call ‘common knowledge.’ It’s common knowledge that we are better off measuring outcomes instead of outputs. It’s common knowledge that we should involve users in designing or redesigning our services. It’s common knowledge that we should focus more on preventing than catching mistakes. None of this was common knowledge before the fads of the past 15 years.”

The authors were putting in context the impact of another fad that was making the rounds at the time. When Management Services Institute (which begat Revenue & Cost Specialists) started, Cost of Services Studies were a fad. Today, these studies are “mainstream” and a number of companies perform them.

It doesn’t hurt to remind the reader that initially a cost of services study also included tax services. The concept is the same: someone is paying for the service and should get their monies worth. In the case of tax services, the “someone” is the taxpayer. If you are just doing a study to increase (i.e. justify) your fees, your agency might not be getting the full benefit of the process. Some potential questions to ask are: (1) What is the full cost of a paramedic call when different or multiple pieces of equipment are used? (2) What is the average cost of a crime scene investigation using dedicated detectives vs. rotating patrol officers into the detective bureau? (3) What is the average cost of a mile of roadway where crews fill potholes for years versus where the roadway is routinely resurfaced? What is the average cost per acre of landscaping with various park configurations? The only limitation on the questions that could be answered is your imagination and the availability of data.

 

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