Teaching Case - City of Somerville: Using Activity-Based Budgeting to Improve Performance in the Somerville Traffic Unit

City of Somerville: Using Activity-Based Budgeting to Improve Performance in the Somerville Traffic Unit


Educator Access
A review copy of this case is available free of charge to educators and trainers. Please create an account or sign in to gain access to this material.

Permission to Reprint
Each purchase of this product entitles the buyer to one digital file and use. If you intend to distribute, teach, or share this item, you must purchase permission for each individual who will be given access. Learn more about purchasing permission to reprint.

  • Product Description

    Since 2004, City of Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone has undertaken a series of fiscal reforms that have allowed the City to improve municipal services during financial hard times. A key reform has been the City's adoption of the budgeting approach called activity-based costing (ABC budgeting). With ABC budgeting, City officials have been able to make budgetary decisions based on detailed information about the expenses and revenues associated with discrete City activities. The transition to ABC budgeting from line-item budgeting that most municipalities use has not been easy. As a first step, Somerville officials developed an inventory of the main programs of each of Somerville's 18 departments and the costs associated with each program. Calculating costs at the program level required a less detailed analysis than calculating costs at the activity level. They identified the activities associated with each program and established performance objectives for each activity. During the fall of 2004, HKS Prof. Linda Bilmes and her students helped Somerville officials accomplish these steps. Together, this information allowed officials and residents to understand for the first time how the City's expenditure of tax dollars translated directly into the City's delivery of services that constituents valued. Encouraged by the results, the Mayor asked Prof. Bilmes and her students to focus on a municipal activity of particular concern to officials and residents: traffic enforcement. Mayor Curtatone asked whether increasing enforcement of the City's traffic laws might pay for itself through increased citation revenue. The case walks through the steps Bilmes and her students took to determine the answer, including allocating personnel expenditures to the activity of traffic enforcement, allocating non-personnel expenditures to that activity through selection and use of an appropriate cost driver, and calculation of the revenue generated from traffic enforcement.

    Learning Objective:
    A primary challenge for municipal governments is to manage their responsibilities as efficiently as possible. This case highlights the role of activity-based costing in helping governments derive the greatest possible value from scarce municipal revenues. Using the Traffic Unit of the City of Somerville as an example, students learn how to calculate the full costs of municipal activities under a variety of scenarios.

  • Other Details

    Publication Date: August 15, 2013
    Teaching Plan: Available with Educator Access
    HKS Case Number: 1969.0
    Case Author: Linda Bilmes
    Faculty Lead: Linda Bilmes
    Pages (incl. exhibits): 29
    Setting: United States
    Language: English
    _year: 2010-2015
    _pages: 25+
    _geography: US & Canada
  • Warranty Information

    /review/1969.0.EducatorCopy.pdf, /teachingplan/1969_2.pdf