Time for a budget lesson

We are now in the middle of council budgeting for next year. So,
come April, will social services managers feel they have maximised
their position? If instead managers are left to drag out another
year in penury, muttering about underfunding, how much is this a
problem of their own making?

Here is a four-point revision guide before you disappear into that
star chamber with your growth bids. Who knows, you might even
outsmart the winter bedding merchants from Leisure.

1 Time and expertise

Managers and directorates often practise the false economy of
devoting too little time to budgeting. There is usually no lack of
other challenging problems. But irksome though it may be to
complete all those templates and matrices sent over by corporate
finance, real money is usually at stake. So time spent doing the
job properly is a good investment.

Budgeting is a competition with other directorates. So don’t lose
out by missing deadlines or producing feeble reports.

2 Bids backed by hard evidence

Evidence is important in making a budget case. Put yourself in a
finance director’s shoes. That essential mental health funding bid
is now just one of a multi-million pound plague of growth
submissions. If only they would go awayÉ

Time-honoured finance director practice in closing a budget gap is
to prune away anything that is inconsistent, unclear or doesn’t
stack up. Don’t let your growth bids fall at this first hurdle.
Check the following:

  • Spending in 2002-3 is consistent with the funding sought for
  • Spend to date in 2003-4 should also fit in. If you are
    underspending in 2003-4, what is the rationale for a growth bid in
  • Don’t seek a full year’s money for measures that only take
    effect part way through the year.
  • Cite external or independent sources that support the need for
    additional resources.
  • Money needs to match activity. It’s difficult to justify growth
    for areas where activity levels are decreasing.
  • Hot budget areas are likely to have been awarded growth in
    earlier years. Were those resources used to good effect?

3 Think accounts

Successful budgeting means thinking in accounts. Finance directors
hold hard accounting information in high esteem. So if you can
point to evidence from the accounts for budget submissions, so much
the better.

So the statement “expenditure on independent fostering is on a
rising trend” is vague. But “cost centre C2 – independent fostering
– showed expenditure of £1.206m in 2001-2, £1.457m in
2002-3 and is forecast to spend £2.003m in 2003-4 (expenditure
to month six £1.103m)” hits the spot.

Think in financial years, cost centres and cost codes. For any
growth bid or savings proposal, know in advance exactly how much
you would increase or decrease individual cost codes. Sad, isn’t

And while you are thinking accounts, keep liaising with your mates
in corporate finance. Form your proposals with their input. In due
course they will probably be receptive to their own ideas.

4 Presentation and accuracy

Accountants relish accurate and well ordered information. It’s the
opposite to working with clients. Everything must fit neatly into a
pigeon-hole, be it an account code, a financial year or a list of
year-end debtors.

So your budget submissions need to be well presented, spell-checked
and – vitally – checked for addition. Tables that don’t add up are
anathema, and a compelling argument for resources can be lost
through the laziness of not checking additions. Exploit the
facilities of office software to include self-checking tables in
reports. Link figures in different areas of a report that are
supposed to be the same. They may be the same in draft one, but you
need to ensure that they are still the same in the tenth

Try to avoid personalising templates issued by corporate finance,
and dutifully comply with any instructions they issue. Imagine how
irritating it is for them to have to edit laboriously what was
supposed to be standard, easy-to-amalgamate information. If you
believe no right-thinking professional would reject a sound growth
bid simply because it was messily presented, think again.

Don’t forget to number pages, columns in tables or anything else
that makes it easier to guide readers through a report. Be
consistent in headings, notation (£, £’000, £million
– stick to one convention in one report) and fonts. The message is
that your finances are well ordered, controlled and at your
command. Don’t send the (albeit subliminal) message of financial
disorder, vagueness and uncertainty. Resource allocators will feel
your growth bid might be throwing good money after bad.

Off you go now to that star chamber, like a true accountant.
Perhaps if you perform really well, there won’t be any winter
bedding in the parks next year after all. And you might do a lot
more for the clients who need your help.

Paul Cook was formerly director of finance at
Westminster City Council. More recently, he has run social services
finance at a number of councils. Contact 07931 327572.

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