It's that time of year. The air is crisp, crock pots reappear on the counter, and we spend hours at work toggling between obsessively checking fantasy team scores and obsessively checking budget balances. Spend it or risk losing it next year.
In all organizations-- but let's talk federal since that's our focus here-- the budget game demands that you plan work to fully meet or exceed available funds. The goal is to accomplish what you said you'd do and not leave any money on the table. (We can save the debate on misaligned incentives to save money for another day.)
So while a lot of fiscally responsible folks hate the game, you can't not play. The rules are simple. Plan to spend all of your budget, plus a little. Only talk about additional needs. Never let the words extra, underrun, left-over, etc. cross your lips-- especially in front of those vultures from other divisions. In the event that there is a remaining balance, immediately (and as quietly as legally possible) obligate the funding towards smaller "nice to do" projects that didn't make the cut at the beginning of the year. This annual dramatic miniseries starts around August 15th and lasts through the end of the government fiscal year. Of course, we're all too familiar with the ulcers this causes for federal program managers, contracting officers, consultants, and baristas.
The problem with the annual fiscal year close drama is that it creates a climate resistant to collaboration throughout the rest of the year.
A better approach is to get more practiced at balancing conversations to simultaneously protect your budget while demonstrating an openness to taking on new work. What makes programs dynamic and organizations strong is welcoming new ideas and showing a willingness to try a fresh approach.
So, more nuanced conversation is needed to bridge the gap between these lines. Protecting your program and staff by playing the budget game is real-- and not changing any time soon. It takes a confident leader to say, "We've have solid plans in place to use all of our funding. We've maxed out our budget capacity. However, we still have more intellectual and professional capacity available to be a part of or lead a new approach to our shared problem."