ATLANTA—Katherine Willoughby, a professor of public management and policy at Georgia State University, was presented the 2016 Aaron Wildavsky Award at the Association for Budgeting and Financial Management’s (ABFM) annual conference in Seattle today. The award is considered the highest honor recognizing contributors to the field of budgeting and financial management.
Willoughby joins W. Bartley Hildreth and Roy Bahl as the third professor in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies to receive the prestigious national award. Of 25 past winners, she is the fifth woman to receive the award.
Willoughby’s academic contributions during her 25 years as a pioneer in the field of public budgeting and financial management include three books, 24 peer-reviewed article journals, eight practitioner journal articles, 27 book chapters and 25 research reports. Much of her research concentrates on state and local government performance budgeting applications and implications. Her scholarship was first recognized in 1991, when she received the NASPAA dissertation award for her research on the decision-making of state budget analysts.
Her research for the Council of State Governments’ Book of the States provides a steadfast guide for those aiming to improve the financial management and sustainability of their states. In the series, her annual analysis of gubernatorial State of the State addresses now spans more than a decade. It is considered the premier reference for practitioners and academics regarding the budget and policy agendas of state chief executives.
Willoughby, who is most proud of her students’ accomplishments, has devoted innumerable hours of service as a teacher, co-author and mentor for Ph.D. students, MPA, MPP and undergraduate students, and as coordinator with Dr. Greg Streib in managing internships for the department.
She has worked collaboratively on numerous research projects and training initiatives with her peers here and around the nation regarding performance budgeting and financial management best practices. Professionally, Willoughby has served the ABFM of ASPA for two and a half decades. Such contributions earned her election as a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration in 2013.
The Wildavsky Award has held the attention of Willoughby for as long as she has been involved with the association.
“I can remember attending the annual conference for years, listening to the acceptance speech of each Wildavsky Award winner and thinking about the amount of work it must require to receive such an honor,” she says. “Ultimately, I believe you have to jump into teaching and research ventures, perhaps with a bit of fear and discomfort, to advance.”
Always the mentor, she offers examples of how this philosophy has helped her career.
“In 1999, our International Center for Public Policy asked if I’d run a training program on local government accounting for finance professionals from Palestine. I went to another professor to ask him to teach the course with me. He responded that he wasn’t an accountant, but neither was I. ‘We are going to do this and do it well,’ I told him. We did the training with great success, and it set me on a course to be involved with the center for almost 20 years now.”
Later, a book publisher asked Willoughby to write a 400-page text on public budgeting “from soup to nuts,” including supplementary materials for students and instructors. She would have a year to complete it.
“I didn’t want to do it at the time, but said ‘yes.’ Halfway through the project, I realized that to be truly comprehensive, I needed to include budgeting in and of the judicial branch. I called the editor thinking she’d give me more time to write the chapter. However, her response was, ‘You do need to add that chapter, and we’re not extending the deadline.’ So, I added it and met the deadline.”
In the end, Willoughby believes that optimism is very important to those working in public finance and budgeting,
“A realistic optimism is important in this line of work because you may not see results in your lifetime. For example, those in developing countries, which is where we do a lot of consulting, want answers. We have to tell them, ‘You have to start small, apply reforms consistently and understand that your hard work may not result in the changes you anticipate in your lifetime.’”
She often finds herself encouraging government finance officers and budgeters to continue to press for reforms and be confident about their country’s future.
“I took a group of Pakistan officials to the Georgia Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. When we left, I saw one of our trainees shaking his head. He told me, ‘I don’t know how we’ll ever see progress in our country. Here you allot 50 percent of your budget to education. We allot 2 percent.’
“Another trainee from Madagascar asked me, ‘How do we run a government when we don’t have any revenue?’ Citizens of his country do not understand a culture of paying taxes, he explained. My response to him was that cultural change takes generations. You have to remain optimistic. Pursuing budget transparency offers a first, baby step toward educating the public about the need for government revenue. Start small and keep moving. Eventually you will see results.”
Professor Katherine Willoughby believes focusing on daily tasks, engaging a combination of discomfort, fear and a determination to take on challenges, and maintaining an optimistic outlook leads one to a lifetime of achievement. Proof of this philosophy will be soon be hanging on her wall, when she returns to campus with the ABFM’s Wildavsky award.