Run a Leaner Local Government in 6 Easy Steps

Lena Eisenstein
6 min read
Operating on a lean budget is a concern for nearly every local government. If you look deeply enough, you'll find many ideas on how to run a lean operation. The good news is that they all work. To be effective, local government staff need to consider cost-saving measures and operating efficiently. Innovation begins with keeping an open mind towards newer ways of doing things like implementing digital solutions and being willing to receive ideas from employees and citizens without prejudice.

1. Engage the Public Using Digital Tools

James Kostaras, architect and city planner in Boston, states, 'I would argue more public engagement'but engagement that better represents the sentiments of the entire community. My recommendation: Use new technologies including collaboration software and digital visualization tools to engage the public more constructively and efficiently.'

That's the idea behind iCompass, a Diligent brand's, Meeting Manager. Meeting Manager is a digital tool that provides a web portal for citizens where they can access meeting agendas and minutes or watch an entire municipal council meeting online.

Another tool that iCompass offers is Board Manager, a software solution that automates the process of managing vacancies and applications for municipal boards and commissions.

Each of these products saves municipal governments a large percentage of costs in labor and materials. While implementing digital solutions comes with a cost, municipalities can realize the savings in short order. If implementing all of the products at once creates a financial hardship, local governments can easily begin with the solution that aligns with their priorities and use the savings to add additional products.

2. Non-Budget Line Item Savings Add Up

One of the first experiments that ran the distance in proving how governments could save money was the Texas Performance Review which showed how Texas could save the state $10 billion dollars. The review process garnered national attention and won awards for government innovation.

The review was so successful that former U.S. President Bill Clinton applied many of the same principles and saved the federal government $106 billion, reducing the federal payroll to the lowest level since the 1950s. In yet another instance, Arnold Schwarzenegger did a similar review in the state of California.

All reviews showed a savings of approximately 5%, recurring year after year. How did they do it? The examples may surprise you. In Boston, they thought about how many vending machines they had all over the city. Each soda vending machine has a light bulb that lights up the front of the machine. Boston government staff took the one bulb out of all soda vending machine fronts and saved $200,000 a year.

The state of West Virginia asked its government staff for ways to save money. One of the suggestions came from an employee who suggested they properly calibrate their salt spreaders, so they weren't spreading too much salt on the roads during the winter months. Properly calibrating salt-spreaders saved the state $3 million a year.

Those are just a couple of examples that other governments found to save money. Local governments have smaller budgets, so they may not be able to realize such large savings. The idea is that savings exist and lots of little savings add up to a greater positive impact on the government's budget regardless of the size of the community or the budget.

3. Look for Ways to Create Efficiency That Don't Appear on Budget Line Items

Think for a moment about how you set up your family's budget. You deposit your paycheck or paychecks into your family's account and pay your monthly bills. Unless you're a Type A person that faithfully itemizes every expense, you might be wondering why there's not as much money left at the end of the month as you expected.

When you look between the line items in your budget, you might find new ways to save money such as cutting down eating out from three times a week to once a week or once a month. If you're a reader, you might find that you can purchase ebooks more inexpensively or take advantage of any number of ebook loaning services at your local library or online. Do you make a habit of purchasing coffee every day or can you take a thermos from home? Maybe that's not a commodity you want to give up. The idea is to learn all the little ways that you spend money and make sure that it matches your priorities for spending and saving.

Getting back to local government efficiency, if you improve performance, the savings will surely follow. Cutting budgets alone will not necessarily save you money'it just causes you to do more with less. Getting a board portal and other cost-saving digital solutions designed specifically for municipal governments is a good example of spending a little to save a lot.

Look for things that are common in every department and you will save in every department.

4. Ask the People Who Know Where to Find Savings

The people who are most vested in efficiency are your employees and the citizens. They are the most conscientious people when it comes to doing away with waste, creating efficiency, and streamlining operations. The trouble is often that local governments either don't listen to them or they don't provide a format that makes sharing an exchange of ideas convenient. A Transparency Portal by iCompass, a Diligent brand, provides an online format that is easily accessible to all citizens, including those with disabilities and those who can't make it to council meetings in person.

5. Do an Annual or Biannual Efficiency Review

Often, all it takes to find ways to operate in a leaner fashion is to do an annual or biannual efficiency review much like the one that the Texas Performance Review did. If it works well once, it's bound to work even better the second or third time.

While regular reviews should yield some percentage of savings, it's important for local governments to recognize that their wish lists aren't unlimited. They'll still have to invest finances and programs where they make the most impact.

6. Be Open to New Ideas and Ways of Doing Things

Because resources will always be limited to some extent, you'll have to limit your ideas as well. All communities have to prioritize their needs. Think not only about new programs, but the cost of the infrastructure that it will take to sustain them continually. Wayne Sommer, Internal Audi Manager in Aurora, Colorado says, 'I think local governments must first establish a vision as to where they want the community to go. Make sure that the program structure supports that vision and then make sure that the budgetary structure supports the program structure, which supports the vision. It's easier said than done, as opposed to just going through the same process every year. There has got to be some thought behind it.'

In running a lean local government, be careful not to cut programs that threaten public service. Keeping an open mind also means steering clear of naysayers. What must be done, can be done when you give new ideas and thought patterns the weight they deserve to take them to the implementation phase.