Shalini Madan Benson

Shalini Madan Benson

Director Consulting Expert

Dedicated federal civil servants build budgets and make policy decisions come to life. Budgeting might seem like a straightforward task based on objective facts and figures, but in reality, impromptu conversations in agency hallways, informal meetings or gatherings, and regular face-to-face interactions influence the choices agency leaders make.

In the absence of those human touchpoints—such as our current situation, with the majority of the workforce teleworking for months in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus—leaders may have less information at hand.

While leaders make those decisions, budget analysts are essential in translating the chosen policies and priorities into blueprints for action with what is called “neutral competence.” Their role is to enact the intent of their political leadership.

In this time of a global pandemic, those teams work in an unprecedented environment, yet are charged with the same task: to build budgets that reflect the policies and priorities of the presidential administration in the clearest way possible, making the best use of limited resources.

Although that is challenging, we face another complication: this is an election year. It is possible, but by no means certain, that we will face policy and program transitions, whether we have a new president and vice president or retain the current occupant of the White House on January 21, 2021. Having transition teams in place at federal agencies gathering policy information is one more hurdle for agency leaders and budget analysts to leap, as they are currently providing information to not only one demanding decision maker, but two.

Even with all of those factors complicating an already complex process, agencies can adopt some strategies to increase communications and build budgets that reflect chosen policy priorities.

Debrief internal staff:  Building budgets depends on policy-making decision meetings at the highest agency levels. Providing “read outs” of those meetings is critical.  Agency leaders should share their reasons for their decisions, talking directly to the leaders and teams charged with implementing those decisions. While always a helpful tool, the debrief takes on even more importance now. Teams should have a daily debrief with the sole purpose of sharing conversations and information. These virtual meetings can somewhat fill the void left by the absence of in-person interactions.

Debrief the debrief: After holding debrief meetings with their team members, senior leaders should connect with their peers on other teams who are advancing the same goals. At one agency I worked at, we called this the “trusted seconds” group. This ensures everyone hears the same message or has an opportunity to ask for clarification if the senior leaders seem to be sending mixed messages.

Bring a plus-one: There can be a tendency to make virtual meetings smaller, with fewer backbenchers. However, there is no substitute for those charged with operationalizing decisions to hear the decisions and direction. In these times especially, we need to widen the circle. Leaders should continue to include their support staff in deliberations. Staff should ask to be included in pertinent meetings with their leaders, and leaders should look to bring a plus-one and invite staff who would benefit by attending.

Be thoughtful about sponsorship, mentorship and diverse perspectives. For leadership and staff alike, as informal communication becomes more difficult, a deliberate check on our own communication is important. Whose voices are we echoing?  In the conversation, are we speaking to and including people who look and think differently than we do?  Are we ensuring diversity of perspective? 

This deliberate effort towards sharing communications acknowledges the challenge federal budget teams are facing, and works to empower and arm those key staff with the information they need to provide the best advice and expertise on bringing leadership’s policy direction to life.

For a look at how CGI can help federal agencies in their budgeting process, download the brochure on our CGI Momentum Performance Budgeting solution.

About this author

Shalini Madan Benson

Shalini Madan Benson

Director Consulting Expert

Shalini Madan Benson came to CGI with extensive federal government experience, including working as an OMB examiner.