Imagine how early you could retire if you had a dollar for every time someone told you to “think outside the box.”  Personally, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this charge in my educational and professional life. But what if I told you that the real money can be found by thinking within the box?  To be more specific, four little boxes…

When it comes to funding decisions for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) projects, you’re best served by channeling your twitter talents into answering the following four excel spreadsheet boxes:

  1. Project Description;
  2. Budget Item Justification (what’s the value of doing the work?);
  3. Consequences (what are the risks of not doing the work?);
  4. Remarks (anything that doesn’t fit squarely into the other fields).

The Corps must think that the best things come in fours, because at any point in time the Corps is working on no less than four budget years:

  1. They’re executing on the fiscal year (FY) they have received funding for; in this case FY19;
  2. They’re working on the budget currently before Congress; FY20;
  3. They’re in the process of developing and defending the President’s FY21 budget to be released in February 2020;
  4. They’re developing and defending a future year’s budget; FY22.

This quad-budget approach helps the Corps evaluate and plan for the construction of large-scale investments with funding needs across multiple budget years, as well as identifying budget spots for smaller operations and maintenance needs.  But let’s be honest: with hundreds of priorities competing within any given fiscal year, this is no small task. To cut down on confusion the Corps essentially uses an excel spreadsheet in which the funding needs of every civil works project in the nation is evaluated by the information inside those four excel boxes mentioned at the start. If you’re hearing about these four boxes for the first time, you’re not alone.

While you should have great working relationships with your Corps district or division offices (if you don’t, forget the rest of this and make that your #1 priority), you likely won’t know many of the decision makers who will be developing and defending final budget allocations in Washington, D.C.  And on the flip side, these same decision makers likely won’t know the details of your Central Valley, or Mississippi, or Oregon flood risk reduction need any better than they’ll know a channel deepening project in the South Atlantic Division. All they will know is what is presented to them in the four excel boxes.

If you’re a non-federal sponsor of a Corps project, it’s now your unspoken responsibility to help your partners at the Corps district level to fit your project details into those four boxes.  But you don’t have to go it alone.  Federal lobbyist like me help clients “tell their story” from the highest levels of Congress down to these four excel boxes. After having spent years moving your project through the SMART Planning Process, distilling a massive Chief’s Report into four excel boxes is a monumental challenge.  Odds are, the current information that is being run up the chain of command about your project isn’t nearly as compelling as it can or should be. 

Please let me know if you have questions about navigating your project through the Corps budgeting process, or any other federal funding issues.  And remember, think OUTSIDE the box in the planning and design of your project, but think INSIDE the box(es) when it comes time to seek Corps funding.

Julie Minerva is a Washington, DC based infrastructure advocate who specializes in Civil Works and all things related to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. You can find her at: [email protected]