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Trust: The Secret Ingredient in Your Budget Deliberations

Trust: The Secret Ingredient in Your Budget Deliberations

Earlier this year I wrote a blog article on the topic of Having Great Budget Discussions. It occurred to me that many of you are now in the midst of those discussions. I thought it timely that I follow-up with some of the thinking that went into that blog article, add to it a bit, and check in on how it is going.

At the time, I suggested you might think March was too early to consider talking about the budget. Based on questions we are currently receiving through our Ask MRSC service, you may think that now it is too late. Now is the time, however, to have those good conversations that result in the best compromises from all the hopes and dreams that will fit into your revenue picture — also known as your budget.

The past blog article focused on illustrating the value to be delivered to your community through performance information. Now I want to shift to the quality of the budget conversations themselves. How do we have the best conversations while debating the merits of the many different thoughts on community service delivery, tax levels, and all the great ideas that tend to come forward during budget time? These good conversations come from, in a word, trust.

One last reference to the previous blog article has to do with the high calling of exchanging value in the form of services and facilities for our community for the ability to assess taxes and fees. I called this “a big deal.” In fact, I would suggest that it is the glue that keeps our free society functioning. We in the public finance arena are entrusted with lots of “other people’s money.”  Trust in our ability to preserve, protect, and invest it in community services is essential.

I recently collaborated with a friend of mine at the Government Finance Officers Association on this topic in Employee Trust Contributes to Finance Health. In this article we explore the notion that trust is needed to get the best outcomes. We cite several relationships where trust might improve the combined work of those involved. Then the article focuses on how the City of Redmond is intentional about building trust as part of its budget process.

In Redmond, the city uses a wide array of participants in developing its budget. This serves several purposes, including improving the financial literacy of the staff and the community. It also helps address other values such as transparency and openness in the process and in the data. However, the more people involved, the more working relationships are created. In addition, balancing the budget is a team activity involving the city’s department heads. The challenge to this leadership team is to build “the best budget for the city.” That means putting parochial interests aside and finding the compromises that, when fit together, create this “best budget.”

This approach calls for a high level of cooperation, interaction, interdependency — all also known as trust. The team is intentional about developing this trust (it does not come naturally!) and the article explores how the city goes about it.

What I’ve seen in my new role here at MRSC, and in my work with many dedicated public servants, is that this trust factor is even important in the most traditional of approaches. We work with dedicated individuals from all facets of government who are working to create their own “best budgets.” The budget workshops you are now having require a lot of “give and take.” Ideas will get proposed, hard questions will be asked, skepticism about approaches will be expressed — all of which can put a dent in the trust that will eventually be necessary for you to serve your community in the best way possible.

The inquiries that we field here at MRSC reveal an opportunity to put “trust building” into your budget calendars. Redmond has had to do this, and as I said, this trust does not come naturally. Early on in my 10-year history with Redmond we thought we had the trust issue solved. We didn’t invest in the tune-up necessary to make progress from the previous biennium’s experience. As a result, budget discussions were not as productive as they could have been. We learned that it continued to be necessary to have “trust building” on our budget calendar each budget cycle. Pursuit of developing the trust that is necessary to become a high functioning team should be ongoing.

My advice is to consider how working on trust might have helped with your own budget process. Make a note right now to add “trust building” to your budget calendars for next year (or biennium). Here at MRSC we are available to provide assistance in helping your local government develop the teamwork required to get results.

At the end of the day, working together, regardless of our various beliefs (political or otherwise), will result in the best outcome for our communities and preserve democracy in the process!

Questions? Comments?

If you have comments about this blog post, please comment below or email me at If you have questions about this or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Mike Bailey

Mike served as a Finance Consultant for MRSC for several years before retiring in 2020.

Mike writes about local government financial management, local government budgeting, financial leadership, and strategic planning processes.