Public Institutions, Planning and Budget Cuts

Public Institutions, Planning and Budget Cuts

Planning for the future can seem like a waste of time when just keeping the lights on is a struggle. Budget cuts are hitting many public institutions, including schools, colleges and universities. The gut reaction is to put the future on hold and deal with the present. That approach some major drawbacks.

First, if you don’t have a plan that articulates a clear future, decisions for today are made based on the past, which means a perpetuation of the status quo, not movement forward. Even in a climate of reduced budgets, time, technology and expectations march on. It is imperative that leaders and managers continue to keep in step with their plans, regardless of the budget reductions.

Second, decisions that are made outside of the organization’s vision are likely to lack the context the vision provides. When evaluating programs, staff and other investments, is the choice being made against the past or against the vision. Consider higher education. If they make cuts against the past, that means letting go of investments that will prepare them for the economic upswing, perhaps risking future income (from tuition and donors) because they don’t appear as relevant coming out of the recession. If, on the other hand, the organization cuts older, underperforming programs, often sacred cows, and tackles innovative ways to deliver services at lower costs, then they can continue to invest forward, while meeting budget obligations.

This is all very painful for one constituency or the other. One question to ask is: do the cuts we make today spread the pain forward, perhaps retaining negative feels and income in the future, or do they help reshape the organization so that it is seen as exhibiting leadership and preparing for a better future?

I personally advise organizations to look at the later rather than the former. They need to realize that in both cases, many people will be upset by the options. In the former, those who retain their jobs or programs may be relieved, but they won’t necessarily be excited. In the later, forward momentum can reinvigorate an organization. Some group of people can be excited about new possibilities, and if the organization is well-managed and open, that enthusiasm can spread rather than being resented.

Visions of the future paint a path forward. A budget reduction is no different than a new technology introduction. It is a step along the path to the future. It is a challenge that must be navigated. It is also an environmental obstacle that can create an opportunity for innovation as the organization accepts the world as it is, and adapts to it, perhaps even attempting to reinvent those things more in its realm of control, such as new funding sources, lowering overhead along with eliminating processes and reducing fixed costs, like energy.

Many agencies should ask themselves the question, for instance, if being in a central location makes sense or not? Letting people work from home can alleviate space issues, reduce energy costs, increase retention and drive down healthcare and sick leave related expenses. The innovation comes from helping encourage managers to change their management styles so they understand how to manage a more virtual workforce.

Take that one change for the day and let me know what you think. Will your agency or institution reinvent itself with the reduction of funding, or will it shrink and become a smaller version of what it is today. Reinvention may mean happier employees as well as happier constituents, even before funding levels start to rise again. In the later case, few if any are happy, on either side of the decision. Each institution or agency must make its choice about how it navigates the future. Just keep in mind, the choices you make today may need to be lived with for a long time. Do they empower you and enable agility, or do they constrain you even further?

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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