Cook: Each dollar must be justified

Cook: Each dollar must be justified

May 30th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

In August 2013, the city dipped its toes in the water, reserving a smidgen from last year's budget - $7 million - for a pilot, practice-run at budgeting for outcomes.

What's BFO? It's the du jour within 21st century government. The process uses hard numbers to prove which programs work and should receive funding, and which don't, and shouldn't.

Instead of backroom, fund-as-usual-because-it's-been-that-way-since-Gene-Roberts philosophy, BFO is scrutinizingly selective. It is "Moneyball" meets "The McLaughlin Group." It is data-based, transparent and an awfully good idea, used in governments from Fort Collins, Colo., to Nova Scotia.

And now, Chattanooga. Earlier this week, Mayor Andy Berke announced his entire proposed budget was rooted in BFO philosophy.

"Each dollar must be justified based on how it delivers results to constituents," the budget introduction reads.

So last year, the city created a test-run pilot, sort of a BFO junior varsity squad before this year's big game. Then-Chief Operating Officer Andrew Kean presented City Council members with a three-page document that lists 17 goals the city hopes to achieve using BFO.

"We are committed to it, and this year's process is the first major step," Kean said at the time.

The first major step.

That list of 17 goals was a heavy-hitting, dreamy, life-saving list. I was smitten at first sight.

Decrease the violent crime rate. Increase the number of teenage Chattanoogans who are employed. Decrease the dropout rate. Bridge the digital divide.

Reduce the city's energy costs. Increase citizen access to city services. Increase the number of kids ready for kindergarten. And 10 more goals just like these.

Best of all, City Hall said, we won't just talk about these things in arbitrary ways. We'll collect the data that proves it. Baselines will be established, information store-housed, results evaluated.

So when Berke released his proposed budget on Tuesday, those 17 goals were the first things on my mind.

How successful was the pilot? How much did the needle move on the 17 goals? How did it all go?

That's what I asked the mayor and Brent Goldberg, deputy chief operating officer.

"Well, here's what I'd say," the mayor began.

Berke and Goldberg both pointed to multiple successes: an increase in the number of children enrolled in the literacy programs. More private developers building affordable housing.

"30 units," Berke said.

More kids reading at grade level. Good news on crime.

They mentioned the high-profile programs, like the Lexia Reading Program. They could have mentioned more, like the Violence Reduction Initiative, or the work being done at the former Harriet Tubman housing site.

They said lots of things, but when asked to present a formal, line-by-line document that shows the results of the $7 million pilot BFO project, they couldn't.

"I hear you. I hear you," said Berke. "We're trying to get there."

The mayor said that collecting such data -- and verifying, streamlining and publicizing it-- is vastly complex, and I believe him. For example, Goldberg mentioned some new tech that was being installed on firetrucks that should dramatically decrease response time.

"We just now got the test version of the technology onto one firetruck two weeks ago," he said. "It took that long during the course of a year to evaluate all the different kinds of technology out there, which ones were compatible with our systems, and which ones made the most sense for installing on the trucks."

(Two weeks ago? Shouldn't a fire chief have a wish-list of new tech items immediately at the ready, itching to hand over to the mayor as soon as he even halfway asks? It took eight months to select one piece of fire truck technology? Talk about response time.)

Berke said shifting city government away from a traditional form of budgeting into this new BFO format takes time. Believe him there, too.

But City Hall's had a year to do it. Not to meet all 17 goals, but to just produce some document -- even unfinished -- that illustrates the highs and lows of that BFO pilot.

"It's a nonstop process to do exactly what you're saying which is have a lot more open information about where we are with each and every one of those measurables," Berke said.

That's why I was so anticipating results from the last year's 17-item list, sort of as a prologue, or early proof, before this year's budget hits the streets.

That's basic BFO philosophy: Show us that the money is being well spent. Prove to us that the program works.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.