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Fort Saskatchewan informs capital investment tradeoffs using peer review process

Fort Saskatchewan, AB, Canada

At a Glance

The City of Fort Saskatchewan expanded priority based budgeting to their capital programs budget by leveraging a software platform to better align capital project planning and investment strategy with community priorities.

Problem Addressed

Each year the City of Fort Saskatchewan develops a 10-year capital plan. This year, the Proposed 2021 Capital Budget includes 52 projects. Facing an expected budget shortfall because of the economic impacts of COVID-19, Fort Saskatchewan leadership was asked to make decisions about what to cut.

Looking at many single line items in the budget was hard to consume and nearly impossible to understand how different tradeoffs would impact their priorities and the community they serve.

Fort Saskatchewan used/is using Priority Based Budgeting to address this/these challenge(s).

Solution(s) Used

Already using priority based budgeting to align operational budget decisions with organization priorities, the city decided to extend the process to their Capital Program.

Leveraging software developed by ResourceX, the city was able to quickly match line items in the existing budget with the overarching priorities or programs that the elected officials and leadership had set. Then using the software, departments were able to score each program across a set of standard attributes such as: Is there a mandate? Does it serve a large proportion of the community? Does it serve a currently underserved population? Is there cost recovery associated? These are key attributes that have been established as best practices by other communities that have implemented PBB.

"I don't think there is any better way to try to come up with objective scoring of a capital project," said John Dance, General Manager of Corporate Services at the City of Fort Saskatchewan.

After initial scores were assessed, the city was then able to do a peer review process to validate and standardize the scores. As a bonus, this process enabled different departments to understand each other's perspectives and priorities, streamlining communication and bridging silos.

According to Dance, the software enabled the city to "look a little closer at our results and how we've [historically] defined our results as elected officials. Great conversations arose because it allowed us to question why projects scored in particular quartiles."

Using all of the inputs, the software provides a final weighted score based on how much each line item contributes to the advancement of key priorities. These scores are being used by the city to prioritize investment activities, understand tradeoffs, and communicate effectively with city council and the community about decisions.

Outcomes

  1. Departments identified a number of opportunities for cost recovery which was hugely important with the city facing COVID-19-related budget questions.
  2. The data-driven approach led the city to consider tradeoffs based on what that would mean for community outcomes instead of negotiating around budget line items.
  3. Data enabled department leaders to have more productive conversations with elected officials about prioritizing reinvesting versus building new infrastructure.
  4. Cross-department buy in around key projects helped streamline the council budgeting process.

Lessons Learned

  1. Software helped the City of Fort Saskatchewan introduce PBB over a number of budget cycles to help with adoption.
  2. First the city used the process to clean up their existing system, then they started training departments and implementing a scoring program.
  3. Fort Saskatchewan connected with a nearby city, Littleton, that had already implemented PBB to replicate the processes that worked well for them.
  4. Rolling out PBB for capital budgeting was a logical extension of the work already done on the operational budget process because it is fundamental to community impact and priorities.
  5. Citizens are better able to understand where budget resources are being allocated through easily digestible program-based language, rather than line item budget descriptions.

Something Unique

Data collected through PBB inventory meant the city had clear information to help adjust service levels as a result of COVID-19.

Who Should Consider?

All municipal governments looking to communicate and make decisions about capital projects backed by data derived from members within their organization.

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