Betsy Gardner greyscale

By Betsy Gardner • April 24, 2019

This article originally appeared as part of a paper on What Works Cities’ Certification program.

In Bellevue, Washington, budgets are outcome-driven. City leadership determines which outcome areas are important for the community, then adjusts accordingly. Bellevue has achieved What Works Cities Certification Honor Roll in part because of this alignment between its budgeting and its community priorities.

When the City began this process—which it calls “Budget One”—nearly 10 years ago, the Finance and Asset Management (FAM) Department was exploring new ways to conduct its budget process for the 2011–2012 cycle. Since the late ‘90s, Bellevue has run community surveys, which helped city leaders take the pulse on what mattered to residents. Putting these two together, city leadership saw the potential for developing an approach that synced with specific outcomes for the community.

After talking with the few other cities and municipalities that practiced outcomes-focused budgeting, FAM sought support from city leadership for this shift in its budget process. The city manager backed the change, recognizing outcome-based budgeting as a way to further the diagnostic, customer-focused government practiced in Bellevue.  

Community members budgeting

After committing to the new budget process, Bellevue then looked to its biannual community survey to see trends and understand community opinions. This helped generate statistical data points, which in turn helped form the basis for the priority areas, or outcomes, that mattered most to residents. The city held community hearings so that residents could give feedback on the process. The City Council, as the elected representatives of Bellevue, discussed, considered and then adopted seven outcomes: Safe Community; Improved Mobility; Innovative, Vibrant and Caring Community; Quality Neighborhoods; Healthy and Sustainable Environment; Responsive Government; and Economic Growth and Competitiveness.

Once the outcomes were established, city staff wrote metric-driven proposals to demonstrate how their proposed programs would support those outcomes. Results teams, composed of staff from multiple departments, were formed for each community outcome. Each results team evaluated the proposals for its outcome and ranked them based on supporting data. Proposals with strong performance metrics, which clearly showed how the program’s success could be measured, were highly ranked. The city’s department directors then reviewed the ranked proposals, looking across all outcomes to provide a citywide perspective. The city manager weighed the information from the results teams, the department heads and prior council direction, then submitted a preliminary budget to the council.

Now, Budget One is a built-in process that guides all budgeting for the city. Micah Phillips, Bellevue’s performance measurement program administrator, emphasized the importance of knowing the community needs. The budget survey is the main tool, but Bellevue also holds public hearings. The community can provide feedback on these sessions, helping city departments fine-tune their proposals and even better serve the public.

Also, Budget One builds on itself, and looking at outcome progress over time provides the city with even more data to inform its work. The city considers both data and human reviews. Phillips feels that the submitted proposals are strong, well-thought-out and informed by available data. Proposers can and should work closely with each other, and FAM, on their submissions. After several years of Budget One, this data is helping the city improve the process. As Phillips points out, “you have to adapt” in city government.

For cities interested in trying outcome-based budgeting, Phillips’ recommendation is simple: “Know what outcomes your community wants.”

Cities also need to have the organizational “values, skills and structures to be able to capitalize” on what the community needs. Phillips also recommends continual evaluation; reevaluating and adapting the process is a key aspect of Budget One. After nearly a decade, seeing the success and growth of outcome-based budgeting is exciting for the practitioners, and they’re honored to be recognized by What Works Cities.