Planning ahead for underspent budgets


Written by Alex Jackson, Client Services Director, dxw

The start of the new financial year has arrived and having money left in the pot at the end of the year is very common. For those in government with some budget remaining, this usually presents an incentive to spend at the last minute. The fear can set in, because if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. This is far from an ideal scenario to find yourself in, but it’s something that public sector teams have learned to live with.

Generally speaking, you often find an underspend on projects and lots of things cause it. A common example is an overly ambitious start date. If that’s pencilled in too far ahead of when the department is actually ready to start, this causes a delay that in turn impacts the budget. The ramp up of spending is slower than expected and it’s pretty likely that money will be left over at the end of the year. And any good civil servant will tell you there should always be contingency for those unforeseen circumstances.

So, how can government teams get the best value from their underspend? It sounds simple but start by planning for it now. Assume that there’s going to be extra budget and you’ll need to find ways to spend it. The best time to do this is between September and December. As well as giving you the best chance of getting something useful done, this happens every year for almost every organisation and suppliers get booked up. If you turn up with money in January, there’s a good chance that your regular partners will have been fully committed since the start of December.


Prioritisation and changing scope

Connecting wants and desires with the reality of delivering a project is difficult. There are many moving parts, and if everything is important then nothing is important. So, naturally as a project progresses there will be elements that have to be deprioritised. 

As deadlines creep closer, you often cut the scope of what you’re going to deliver. Despite everyone’s best efforts to try and fix the scope, budget and deadline – you can rarely have all three. Prioritisation calls are what make a project successful, so there will always be things to pick up later.  

Assume work will be de-scoped and make a written plan in advance for how you’ll use your underspend. Think about the priorities you have and what you’re working towards, and plan how you can get the most for your money.

If you do reach start to see underspend accumulating, there are always ways to get value from it. 

Paying down technical debt – As with any digital service, there is always going to be a build-up of technical debt. Those workarounds that were put in place temporarily and are still there years later? It’s worth revisiting them. By paying down technical debt you’re building a sustainable service and that will make future changes more economic. It means you can spend less overall, because there will be less complexity for your teams to deal with in future. Although this might not be the most exciting of projects, it unlocks all sorts of possibilities. 


Discovery and experimentation – The focus doesn’t have to solely be on development work. Discovery and experimentation are good areas to explore too. Experiments are an important part of any iterative process and sometimes that gets lost. There may be aspects of a project that were deemed too complex and deprioritised, this is the time to come back to them. It could also be an opportunity to start identifying the next class of user needs, what’s next on the list now the most important needs have been met?

Pick up where you left off – The way projects are run often means that at the end of a 12-week alpha, a team will immediately begin to delve into the next stage. Extending that work by a week or two is a good use of any underspend on your budget. It allows the team to incorporate the institutional knowledge and value they have built up and find ways to embed it into the organisation. 

Adding capability – Another thing to think about is adding people to a team. Bringing in other capabilities and capacity is a way to build resilience for the long-term. It’s something to consider if you’re in an experimental phase or have a long running stable project which extends beyond the financial year. Bringing extra people into the team can help support research, service design, co-design and facilitation. But again, these decisions should be made sooner rather than later.


Don’t be afraid to tap into the rainy-day fund

Underspend happens. It’s a cycle that repeats itself year after year, so it’s best to assume it’s there and plan accordingly. It offers a variety of opportunities to enhance digital projects. Whether it’s paying down technical debt, refactoring code, building new features or working on infrastructure. It’s about using this money to make programmes, projects and teams more sustainable. Plan ahead and create capacity that will help in this new financial year and enrich your services.

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