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?