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The Ambition Gap

May 30, 2023

By Chris Fabian, CEO and Co-founder of ResourceX

There is no shortage of ambition among local government leaders. Many aren’t content with simply persevering day after day to preserve the status quo, but act with a sense of urgency to deal with the many societal challenges that they were elected to attack.

For example, Mayor Karen Bass of Los Angeles has laid out a plan to end homelessness in that city; the City and County of Denver established a “Vision Zero” plan to reduce traffic caused deaths to bicyclists by 2030; and 49 local government have signed on to the “Race to Zero,” an effort to address carbon neutrality by 2050, sponsored by ICLEI a global network of more than 2,500 local and regional governments.

While vision and inspiration are essential ingredients in the pursuit of progress, according to ICLEI’s recent policy brief, there’s a “disparity between the human and financial capacity allocated by local governments and the goals and ambitions that are being established. . . We define this disparity as the “ambition gap”, a recognition by many local governments of the need to take significant action on climate but limiting the level of resource allocation to meet the levels of support required to meet their targets and goals.”

The Bloomberg Philanthropies City Budgeting for Equity and Recovery Initiative identified the same phenomenon in connection with its efforts to help cities enhance equity in their communities, reduce disparities and address vulnerabilities. It’s key finding thus far: For all of the intentional actions by local governments to establish equity commitments, produce equity action plans, hire chief equity officers, and infuse education and awareness about equity within their organizations, the glaring disconnect was the gap between equity aspirations, and the budget to fulfill promises to carry out the plans.

Bridging the Gap in Flagstaff
On June 15, 2021, the City of Flagstaff, Arizona set hopeful and ambitious goals for climate action in its new Carbon Neutrality Plan (CNP) an effort to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions “through drastic shifts in how we heat and power our buildings, travel from place to place, and manage our waste,” according to a June 2021, report outlining this effort. Leaders understood from the outset that achieving success would require strong leadership, bold action, perseverance, creativity......and resources.
The first step, of course, was for departments within the organization to determine the approaches they were going to have to take to accomplish their carbon neutrality goals. The big remaining question that confronted city leaders was how their efforts would be funded. With that in mind, the city applied a CNP lens to each incoming budget request to ensure that each department within the organization was making progress.
But its budget process wasn’t initially well suited to support this effort.
With strong leadership from the top, City Manager Greg Clifton placed the Sustainability Director on the budget team to help understand the budget development process. With budget leaders and sustainability leaders in place, the City of Flagstaff worked side by side with ResourceX to develop and prioritize their programmatic budget proposals in time for the FY 2022-2023 proposed budget.
The use of their priority-based budgeting data was crucial in their ability to reframe the budget process through the lens of the Carbon Neutrality Plan and find the right questions to ask about each budget request.
Utilizing this programmatic budget process, departments could effectively identify how their proposed programs would impact the Carbon Neutrality Plan. The staff felt participatory, aligned, and accountable for the plan's advancement by providing the lens through which each request was created.
With the right people on the team, Flagstaff created custom questions on their program budget requests which put them into the context of the Carbon Neutrality Plan. These questions helped departments to align their budget requests with the benefits they would bring to the city’s CNP efforts.
Ultimately, Flagstaff created a fully developed and prioritized program data set with customized program budget requests centered around the advancement of the Carbon Neutrality Plan while maintaining alignment with all of the city's most important priorities. Ultimately, through this process some $2 million dollars were thoughtfully allocated to new CNP-related investments in 2022-2023; its first truly programmatic budget.
Some of the city’s other accomplishments that were accommodated by this approach included the following:

1. Almost 25% of initial action steps were funded for the first three years of the plan.
2. All budget requests were made at the program level and tied to priority-based budgeting data.
3. Elected officials could accurately track how proposed programs would impact the organizational investment in the Carbon Neutrality Plan and maintain alignment with the city’s top priorities.
4. The new program-based budgeting process helped staff feel participatory in making a difference and accountable for the plan’s advancement.

Too many local governments feel stymied by an “analysis and planning cycle” that while successfully producing action plans to meet high ambitions, can lead them to fall short of their ambitions if they haven’t connected action to necessary resources. In this example, the benefits of participatory budgeting for environmental purposes. But that’s only the beginning. Whether a city is trying to transform its approach to equity, infrastructure, traffic safety, public safety and beyond, the need to back up laudable goals with real-world budgets is essential.

The contents of this blog post reflect those of the author, and not necessarily those of the GFRC.