Think, Know, Prove: Zero Based Budgeting

Zero Based Budgeting: it’s the new rage, only it’s not so very new.

Two things that are consistent across most of the different sources linked above and most of what I’ve read about ZBB over the last 36 hours suggests that it can be a powerful source of budgeting reform and that, if rushed or not well understood when implemented, it can be worse than whatever method it replaces.

You may be thinking–“Why is he talking about Zero Based Budgeting?” Good question. Perhaps you saw the summary of the HW Chairs meeting so graciously provided by Ivan Tejeda (thanks, Ivan!) yesterday and took particular notice of #2 on the list. Or maybe your chair has called you in the last few days looking for some info, half frantic, half sobbing, half coherent or all three. If not (or if so), neither of those is how it landed on my radar; here’s how I heard about it:

On Thursday night, I received a personal email from a friend who works at another college about the Chairs there having been informed that they had to come up with a list of expenditures for next year, along with associated justifications that tie those expenditures to the strategic goals of CCC (see the four goals of reinvention) and/or other institutional goals (excellence in teaching, improved customer service, student and staff security, etc.), and with performance measures (which should include baseline data and new targets); they were to compile and submit all of that within 72 hours or so in order for the local administration to compile and review them, all in order to meet a swiftly approaching district deadline of March 15th. So I wrote to a couple of HW chairs and found out that they’d received the same marching orders.

Among the documents they received from District, via our V.P., was included a time line for the ZBB implementation, which said that from February 16th to March 11th, Chairs and Deans would build their annual plan and budget proposal, which would be reviewed by the college and forwarded to the district office by March 15th.

An interesting associated problem was that the document itself was dated February 24th. Another issue is that the chairs received it on February 28th.

In other words, the explanation of ZBB and the forms required to do it–the former of which, according to multiple sources (see above) being utterly crucial to effective implementation of this powerful, but time consuming process–was 1) created a full week into the four week working period; 2) not delivered to the parties responsible until two weeks in; 3) dropped on the Chairs’ door steps just in time for midterms (which is not only the due date, but also a particularly busy time for chairs’ own teaching as well as their faculty, not to mention a period of crucial feedback for students that can have significant impact on their success and/or persistence in the course).

The upshot is that the Chairs are left with about a week to gather info from faculty and compile their planning for next year, as well as predicted expenditures–including numbers of adjuncts (despite the fact that information about sabbaticals, reinvention task force members, reinvention recommendations (which may affect programs), etc., are completely unavailable at the moment–and their justifications, and about half a week for local admins to compile it all, assuming that everyone is working for the weekend.

One of the chairs I spoke with about this whole thing put it this way:

Can it really be a good and useful thing to enact such a major change in the budgeting process within a ridiculously short time frame?  We have to ask what will ultimately be accomplished, overlooked, or harmed by an unfamiliar process that is rushed through for the sake of change.  Or, is there a sinister agenda at work here as well?

I have no answer for that Chair, but in the meantime, I can make two suggestions:

1. Plan on talking to your department chair, and doing so sooner rather than later, with your list of planned expenditures, needs, and plans for next year (description, $ amount, and a performance objective, along with a baseline and target measurement). If you don’t, there is a risk that in the rush (and not through malice), your project or need won’t make it into your department budget next year, and so may not happen. Help yourself by helping your Chair get some information about your plans and needs for next year, as best as you can cobble them together in the next few days.

2. Help us all understand a little more about Zero Based Budgeting by answering three crucial questions for us about this subject. What do you think? What do you know? What can you prove?

    6 thoughts on “Think, Know, Prove: Zero Based Budgeting

    1. I’m one of those chairs at a different college who has been sobbing about this ridiculous plan. I can’t even begin to tell you the impact that all of this reinvention-without-transparency and reinvention-at-the-last-minute has had on my teaching, my professional life, my home life, and my health. I am lucky in that my department is supportive, helpful, and my colleagues are over-all amazing but still…I’m not sure how much longer I can hold on. Do you hear despair? We also just had a visit from members of one of the reinvention task forces and the despair there was palpable. Please, please come to the meeting on March 11 so that we can take our colleges back and create true shared governance for our whole system!

      • I am a retired faculty member who worked over 30 years at CCC. The current situation is really nothing new. It seems as though something like this happens almost every time there is a new chairperson of the CCC board.
        I particularly remember what happened after James Tyree became chair. There was an HWC faculty meeting called by John Wozniak (then President Nancy Desombre was out of town), probably on a Friday morning. One result of that meeting was that department chairs had to complete a lengthy report for Monday or perhaps Tuesday. I was chair of my department. I had planned to be out-of-town to a family event for the weekend. I stayed home by myself all weekend and completed the report. Many chairs did not get the report in on-time. I personally doubt whether my report was even read by administration.
        A similar situation happened when Ron Gidwitz became chair, but things were not quite so rushed.

    2. “Do you hear despair?”

      This is beginning to sound like a Greek tragedy.


      In this scene:

      Electra: “Reinvention, REINVENTION!”

      (The chorus -only seven members, not twelve -sing

      (providing a sense of rich spectacle):

      The Bacchants (khorus)in unison:
      “ZBB ZBB ZBB ZBB baseline target measurement
      ZBB ZBB ZBB ZBB baseline target measurement
      ZBB ZBB ZBB ZBB baseline target measurement
      ZBB ZBB ZBB ZBB baseline target measurement”

      Don Álvaro, o la fuerza del sino…

    3. Think:
      It sounds like a corporate idea that does not suite an educational institution. WE ARE NOT A BUSINESS. WE DO NOT HAVE “SHAREHOLDERS”. WE ARE NOT FOR-PROFIT. WE ARE HERE TO MAKE A POSITIVE DIFFERENCE IN THE LIVES OF OUR COMMUNITY SO THAT OUR CITY CAN FLOURISH, not so that our city can be the riche$t in the world. (Money don’t buy happiness.)
      Retention may equal success, but that is one small part of a great equation. (Hang with me peeps, I’m trying to write in retention-esque terms to reach a larger audience.)

      From (thanks for the link PhiloDave):

      On the cost side of the equation, zero-based budgeting:
      * May increase the time and expense of preparing a budget;
      * May be too radical a solution for the task at hand. You don’t need a sledgehammer to pound in a nail;
      * Can make matters worse if not done in the right way. A substantial commitment must be made by all involved to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

      How much time has been given to departments to prepare this plan?

      Back to
      If those appointed to conduct budget reviews are unwilling to truly assess every item in their budget, word will get out quickly that this new budgeting technique is more symbolism than substance.

      Not much, yet it sounds like we have no choice but to comply. So much for The Operational Excellence and Optimization Task Force. Your work is being done for you peeps. Sit back and keep your morale high. Those statistics you’re collecting, and improvements you are wanting to suggest will serve to make it appear as if you did make a difference, and it will keep paper-shredding services in business.

      • Leave aside the merits of the actual idea and whether or not it is suited to an educational institution. The implementation is horrible. In my opinion, it suggests incompetence at best and malice at worst. Management is supposed to be the strength of our current administration, yet the introduction of this budgetary process suggests the opposite. If the Lounge weren’t a family website, I’d be using much stronger language to describe this debacle. And there has to be SOMETHING that we can do about this beyond complaining amongst ourselves. If we were CPS, and it was suddenly mandated that every elementary school had less than a week to justify their budget to the Board of Education at the risk of losing their funding, don’t you think we’d hear something about this in the Tribune/Sun-Times?

        Imagine if I had an assignment I thought up a month ago for my students that I wanted to collect and grade next Wednesday. This assignment would be fairly complex and unlike anything they have actually done in class. However, I didn’t actually start the actual planning for said assignment until three weeks ago, and I don’t actually tell the students that the assignment exists until late this week. But, because I’m the professor and I have things to grade, I keep the same due date of March 9. Do you think that my students would passively sit back and just comply? Sure, some (maybe even most) would, but I’m willing to bet that at least one student would be in my chairperson’s office so fast it would make my head spin. They would be either trying to get the assignment changed or, at the very least, trying to shine a light on how this particular assignment suggests I want to undermine student success instead of encourage it. And you know what? They’d have every right to complain about my poor planning and inflexibility. (Sure, maybe I could offer the excuse to my students that I’m preparing them for the realities of working in the corporate world, but I doubt that reasoning would satisfy many in my class.)

        Maybe I’m just being overly dramatic, and this will all blow over like so many other things. But right now I can’t help but think: what is going to be the proverbial straw that gets us out of despairing faculty mode and more like the angry student who wants to change things?

        • That straw broke this back a while ago. While I feel despair, I will act by attending the meeting on 3/11 and advocating for strategic responses. I don’t know anything about our Board Chair, Martin Cabrera. I am going to assume that he is a reasonable man who is complicit in bad decision-making because he is operating from bad data. We are scholar-teachers! We need to gather our data, challenge the notion that quantitative data are the only reliable and valid data, demand transparency, and I don’t know what else. I am exhausted and despairing, but my students NEED me to stand up to the powers-that-be so that they can choose to become educated and then turn around and become educators in their own communities.

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