Is BFO The Way To Go On Future Budgets?


A “guest essay” by state Sen. Dan Kotowski in yesterday’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate touted a new form of government budgeting as a possible solution to the “waste, fraud and mismanagement…[that] allows for unchecked spending and little accountability” in state government (“State finance woes underscores [sic] need for budget reform,” June 3).

No offense, senator, but it looks like the only thing that will reform state government is a complete housecleaning in Springfield, starting with House Speaker Mike “Machiavelli” Madigan, Sen. President John Cullerton, and continuing all the way down the line.  When 8-year old kids run card-table sidewalk lemonade stands better than you elected and appointed officials run our state, it’s time to back up the truck and look for a fresh start because the folks currently down there already have proved themselves to be more problem than solution.

But Sen. Kotowski’s endorsement of Budgeting for Outcomes (“BFO”) piqued our curiosity in the wake of a just-completed City budget process that was better than past efforts but still pretty unsatisfactory.

The unofficial slogan for BFO appears to be: “Delivering results citizens value at a price they are willing to pay,” and its purported virtues are that it starts with a determination of how much money the taxpayers of a particular governmental body are willing to spend on government services during the budget year – and then works backwards to get to that point by ascertaining essential community needs, ranking/prioritizing services and outcomes to meet those needs, setting specific measurable goals linked to funding dollars, and then devising strategies to achieve those goals in the most cost-effective ways.

But that’s just one nut-shell explanation: there are many others, and we encourage you to Google them and read about the BFO experiences to date in places like Fort Collins, CO, Dallas, TXSavannah, GA and other cities that are trying it.

Whether BFO truly is an innovative way for governmental bodies to operate or just the latest fad remains to be seen.  But just as we previously encouraged the City to seriously consider Zero-Based Budgeting (“ZBB”) as an alternative to the current “incremental” budgeting that simply reinforces and rewards institutionalized expenditures, bad practices and inefficiency, we think BFO deserves similar consideration.

But consideration of such a significant change in how the City budgets and operates should start NOW…not next January when the budget deadline is only four months away.

2 comments so far

Found this on that BFO site you link to (

“It helps the general interest trump the special interests. In a normal budget process, when a line item comes up for review the interest groups that care about it show up and pound on the legislators involved. When they do so in a BFO process, those legislators are looking not at one line item but at a whole list of spending items to achieve a particular outcome, ranked by priority. The trade-offs involved in any budget become very clear. Typically, legislators ask the interest groups some interesting questions: “What program should we not fund so we can afford yours?” And: “Why do you think your program promises better results for the dollar than that program?”

That last question should have been asked to every city department and every interest group that came before the city council asking for money during the budget process.

“BFO” seems like a BFD. Isn’t this what we are supposed to be getting anyway? Does a government body budget for a program or for an outcome? When I go to the market, having budgeted for apples, I spend the money, get the number of apples I expected, and eat them. If BFO will ensure the same for government, OK, but it shouldn’t require more statist, neo-business alphabet soup designed to impress the chattering class.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  We’re not suggesting that BFO is a magic bullet.  But if the current budget process was directed at outcomes, then why didn’t we hear the aldermen debate the elimination of the police department’s traffic division as the desired outcome of the elimination of four (six?) police officers?  Similarly, we don’t recall the Council discussing the specific outcomes they were expecting from the $110,000 budgeted for the lobbyist to fight O’Hare expansion (e.g., how many steak dinners at Sam & Harry’s for how many members of congress were we supposed to get for that money?).  And we also didn’t hear any specific outcomes discussed for the $186,000 budgeted for community groups – it was just: “Here’s some money, put it to good use.”