The Adaptive Budget: How Cities Are Repurposing Funds to Invest in Impact

A Q&A with What Works Cities Director of City Solutions Clarence Wardell

What Works Cities
May 15 · 8 min read

In the local government innovation space, getting the best results for residents is paramount. One of the biggest obstacles cities face in doing so is often not a lack of innovative ideas, but rather the challenge of distinguishing ideas that are delivering results from the ones that are not meeting goals — and then investing funding and scaling work accordingly.

Clarence Wardell

This is where Clarence Wardell, What Works Cities’ Director of City Solutions at Results for America, comes into the picture. He leads a line of work known as Repurpose for Results (or repurposing): using data to make decisions about when to shift funding away from programs that aren’t working toward ones that are. As more cities adopt this practice, they’re better measuring the efficacy of their spending, embracing an adaptive budgeting culture in city hall, and ultimately ensuring taxpayer dollars go toward programs that will produce the best results.

We caught up with Clarence to learn more about repurposing, why it’s a best practice of What Works Cities Certification, and how cities can bring repurposing strategies to their own budgeting process.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Repurposing helps cities reexamine their status quo. In many cases, if a city is in a good budgetary environment, unless there is a reason to question why a program or service has received funding, ineffective programs can continue to exist, even if they are decidedly not achieving the intended results for residents.

In the government innovation space, we want cities to experiment with different programs and services to improve the lives of residents, but we know that not every program will work. Repurposing at its core is about helping cities to constantly take stock of the resources that they are distributing across their programs and pushing them to get the best use of those resources — both in terms of what the evidence says about which programs work and what residents are saying about programs. We are pushing cities to invest in resident-centered programs and services, and building the skill set of cities to do so on a regular basis. Repurposing is unique because it’s not just shutting down a program — it’s building the muscle to say:

“There is an opportunity cost to every investment we make, and these are dollars that should be put toward programs that are helping us address our biggest challenges in a demonstrable way.”

In many ways, repurposing exists atop other foundational practices that cities will find in the What Works Cities Certification Criteria. For example, putting together a data inventory, setting up an evaluation process, building capabilities in results-driven contracting — all of these are connected to repurposing. Repurposing, closely related to what others may recognize as outcome-based budgeting, is about setting priorities and goals, pulling in data, bringing the right people to the table to interpret the data, and asking good questions about the data to move forward on whether a program or service is actually serving residents.

We think that building repurposing into the existing budgetary and resource-allocation processes, and doing so year after year, is fundamental to building a well-managed city. It’s shifting a city’s entire budgeting process to ask if the programs that are being invested in are actually achieving outcomes for residents. We want repurposing to be a part of cities’ annual or biennial budgeting process and to ask this question every time they get ready to approve and allocate dollars to support a program or service. Over time, we hope this moves the needle towards a more well-managed and responsible government.

A chameleon—a species with a reputation for assessing its environment and adapting accordingly (Image via Unsplash)

Oh, it would have to be a chameleon. It’s able to adapt to its environment by recognizing that the color of its scales are not the most optimal for existence and safety, and make the needed changes. I would say that repurposing is being able to recognize the environment that you’re in, the needs of the community at a given point in time as well as if resources are being allocated to align with both priorities and outcomes, and to adapt accordingly.

Repurposing is not always put into action because a program is fundamentally flawed; it could also be that a program was very effective at a given point in time, but the needs of the community have evolved in such a way that the program or service delivery is no longer effective in that environment. It’s about getting cities to the point of saying, “That’s okay — the resources are still here. Now how do we evolve and adapt?”

There are building blocks that are easier to do upfront that can help build momentum. One of them is building a service inventory. It sounds simple, but a lot of cities don’t know what services they are actually funding. And when you start to think broadly about what defines a service, or how narrowly you define it, some of it is actually very subjective. Going through the process helps you understand what your city views as a service, how you categorize them, and how much you allocate toward each. Only then can you determine if a particular investment is worth it. Saying, “Let’s define what we’re funding as a city,” before you get into the controversy of moving around peoples’ budgets is a less controversial way to start moving toward reallocating funds.

A second building block is to define what your priorities are as a city and as a mayor or executive leader. These priorities are normally there as part of the mayor’s campaign or as part of the state of the city address. Once you identify these shared priorities, then you can start to align the services that you are funding with those priories.

There are definitely cities out there that are already doing work like this. One of the questions that we ask cities going through the What Works Cities Assessment process is: Can you point to a service or program that you’ve identified, through the use of data and evidence, was not working? And did you effectively shut down the program and reallocate those funds? That’s the full cycle of it. Even getting to shutting down a program is a monumental step, and moving toward reallocating the funds in a purpose-driven way is actually another. I’ve seen cities shut down a program and then put that funding back into the general fund, and I think that’s great — that’s starting to build that muscle of the money getting put to good use elsewhere.

It can be challenging to end a program and to come to the realization that the program that you’ve poured a lot of resources and time into is not actually achieving the results you intended for the residents. And so, what we’ve tried to do is help cities build a process to think through how to communicate that something isn’t working when that’s the case. That’s difficult. Cities and mayors don’t often pursue repurposing work because, even if a program doesn’t work, from the perspective of another person who doesn’t have all the information, they may think it’s doing just fine. So they don’t understand the opportunity cost. Programs have built in constituencies so an important part of this is not just how cities use data to understand objectively if something is working or not before taking action, but also how they message the need for repurposing.

None of this works unless you have strong leadership at the top that says they want something like this and are open to what will be potentially, down the road, a politically contentious process. Ways to defuse that are some of the core things we work on: bringing data to the table; showing what’s working and what’s not working; asking folks to show the value of a program or service; demonstrating that a program is achieving results and moving a city toward achieving priority outcomes. This work is hard because you can’t avoid the controversy — people are invested in their own programs and services. But it’s not all about cuts. It’s an opportunity to view your work as vital and core to the city. It’s an opportunity to argue for more resources.

Having an open and transparent process that folks can be bought in on upfront mitigates tension down the road. But you won’t be able to eliminate it all, and that’s why having a strong chief executive, someone who is able to make tough decisions and lay out a clear decision for where he or she wants to go in regards to the allocation of city resources is so important.

When we talk about data, we tend to talk about quantitative data, crunching numbers, pulling from a bunch of different data sets across agencies or through program evaluations. What tends to get left out is the qualitative component, understanding the resident perspective. If you’re working on a program that is focused on providing affordable housing to low- to moderate- income earners in your community, have you talked with them? Have you asked what they want? What their challenges are? And have you asked yourself how that informs your decision-making?

Though we see great examples of this in government, it doesn’t happen enough. It’s difficult at the federal and state level, but at the local level, these are folks who are in your own community. Local governments need to speak to them. Community engagement is key; you can’t do this work without bringing residents into it.


What Works Cities Certification — the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government — emphasizes the importance of repurposing. Across the country, cities of all shapes and sizes are doubling down on their commitment to deliver the best possible results for residents by using Certification as a guide.

Any U.S. city with a population of 30,000 or more can receive exclusive support from What Works Cities to accelerate their progress simply by completing a What Works Cities Assessment online. Get started on yours today!

Let’s Chat about Data

Get insider tips from the front lines of data-driven transformation in this Q&A series with city champions and What Works Cities experts

What Works Cities

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Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.

Let’s Chat about Data

Get insider tips from the front lines of data-driven transformation in this Q&A series with city champions and What Works Cities experts

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