A string of recent budget crises, doomsday deadlines and last-minute deals has complicated agencies' longer-term budget planning.
However, most agency budget professionals say they're plowing through the uncertainty and will be able to meet spending targets for fiscal 2015 mandated by the Office of Management and Budget, according to a recent survey by Grant Thornton and the American Association for Budget and Program Analysis.
Earlier this year, OMB directed agencies to cut their fiscal 2015 budget submissions by 10 percent, in part by reducing duplication and fragmentation.
According to the survey, more than two-thirds of respondents said they are making progress developing the next fiscal year's budget and they haven't let problems in fiscal 2013 — the onset of sequestration, fiscal 2014 or the 16-day government shutdown — distract them.
However, a smaller subset of respondents indicated a potentially bumpy road ahead. About 13 percent of the budget professionals surveyed reported they were "woefully behind schedule" on developing a fiscal 2015 budget. Another 5 percent agreed with the statement that "People are beginning to realize that we still have to do a 2015 budget."
The question as to whether the agencies will be able to meet OMB-mandated reductions elicited a more mixed response.
About one-third of respondents to the survey said they thought they could meet the spending targets. However, the remaining two-thirds of respondents said doing so would be either difficult or impossible. For example, 39 percent of respondents said meeting the mandated reductions would be "difficult but doable." On the other hand, 28 percent agreed with the statement that "After all of our other reductions, there is nothing left to cut."
The poll consisted of 145 respondents, 79 percent of whom hailed from the executive branch and 63 percent of whom identified themselves as senior managers or executives. The survey ran from July 2013 and ended in early October. Grant Thornton and AABPA collected the responses and included them in in their report "Interrupted Journey: The Road to Better Budgeting," published earlier this month.
Budget officials left dealing with 'crisis du jour'
The near-constant stream of crisis conditions — short-term continuing resolutions, across-the-board sequestration cuts, furloughs of employees, the recent government shutdown — have taken a toll on agencies' ability to plan long-term, according to the survey.
"Constrained by funding and politics, agencies have been forced to become masters of the band-aid solution — finding the quick, low-cost fix that pushes challenges into the future rather than solving them in the present," the report concluded.
According to the survey, 82 percent of respondents said their budget analyses have suffered "quite a bit" because they've had to "contend with the crisis du jour."
"We work hard on an analysis that is then quickly discarded as assumptions change," an anonymous respondent commented.
Another respondent said constrained timelines and reduced staff size have also played a role in limiting their offices' effectiveness.
"They need a lot of analyses from a depleted workforce, so the accuracy and quality of the analyses suffer, and ultimately they are less useful," the respondent said.
Still, agency budgeteers are trying to maintain a forward-looking focus.
The survey asked whether budget managers in fiscal 2013 were "doing whatever is necessary 'to make it through the year' regardless of the impact on FY 2014 and beyond?"
Ten percent of respondents agreed that "everything is focused on just making it through the year," while 41 percent said they still factored in longer-term consequences in all of their decisions. The remainder fell somewhere in between.
(By Jack Moore)