Viewpoint: Tips for managing efficiently under tight budgets

Six practical ways to stay within financial constraints in tough times

By James Nardozzi

Public sector budget cuts are taking a toll and forcing managers to maximize efficiency. In addition to tightening their fiscal belts, managers have to be innovative and call on a dual skill set of public sector experience and practical business knowledge to accomplish the same amount of work with a shrinking workforce.

I called upon both skill sets when I served as deputy police chief of a 400-person police department that was represented by four different labor unions and had a $27 million annual operating budget. Strong business management skills were essential to my ability to be successful and to the overall performance of my department.

Now more than ever before, public sector managers must make wise budgetary, personnel, operations and other business decisions. The following six tips can help department managers organize their operations wisely.

1. Manage within the confines of the current collective bargaining agreement. Although the temptation may exist to “cut corners,” dollars saved now often can result in costly arbitration rulings down the road. You can’t afford costly grievances, so understand the parameters of your current agreement and stay within them.

2. Track your department’s finances daily. It is far easier to stay on budget with real-time tracking than by using month-old data from your finance department. I had spreadsheets to track every expenditure — from overtime and callbacks to sick time. As a result, I had more accurate and up-to-date numbers than my city’s finance department could provide, simply because mine were never more than three days old. Each business day that civilian personnel were working, I had them present me with the prior day’s expenditures and encumbrances by 10 a.m., which made it easier to see if we would end the month at a deficit or surplus based on our annual operating budget.

3. Don’t delay purchases unnecessarily. Waiting until the end of the third or even the fourth quarter of the fiscal year to make purchases can be dangerous territory. If you have not spent or encumbered your purchasing budget by the first week of February, your finance director may transfer your funds to another department. Or, outsiders watching your budget may think you padded it and will look to reduce your upcoming budget requests for line items not spent or encumbered by February. If something is needed and budgeted for, tell your staff to make the purchase sooner rather than later.

4. Work with union leaders to ensure your department comes in on budget on labor costs. Forging a solid working relationship with your union leadership is critical. I am also a realist and recognize that this, in many organizations, is easier said than done. However, it doesn’t hurt to try. For instance, if you’re at risk of going over budget, ask if the union will allow for overtime to be paid at straight time instead of time-and-a-half for a brief period. How else can you work together to manage unanticipated budgetary constraints in a mutually beneficial way? Perhaps future training opportunities can be a reward for meeting fiscal goals.

5. Ask a local university if they can provide experts to facilitate training at no cost. This could be an excellent alternative to paying professional trainers to deliver the same program.

6. Hold each division or unit commander responsible for labor expenditures under his or her command. During routine staff meetings, have each commander present his or her current budgetary status. Any commander running a deficit due to overtime or other reasons needs to explain the overages in front of his/her colleagues. This helps encourage accountability and transparency.

Overall, a well-rounded perspective is key to the successful implementation of these changes as well as any others. Developing the conceptual, analytical and operational skills needed to respond to today’s public sector challenges is a necessary first step in this process.

James Nardozzi is dean of Post College and director of the Post University Master of Public Administration degree program. He is also a blogger at

Please or Register to post comments.

What's Viewpoints?

It features the Editor's Viewpoints and contributed commentaries.


Derek Prall

Derek Prall is a professional journalist who has held numerous positions with a variety of print and online publications including The Public Manager magazine and the New Jersey Herald. He is a 2008...

Jason Axelrod

Jason Axelrod is an award-winning journalist who has reported for The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, the Phoenix Business Journal and Mother Nature Network, among other outlets. Jason...
Blog Archive
We use cookies to improve your website experience. To learn about our use of cookies and how you can manage your cookie settings, please see our Cookie Policy. By continuing to use the website, you consent to our use of cookies.