Thursday, March 12, 2009

Transparent as Running Water

Tim Burke has a characteristically thoughtful post up about transparency and cost-cutting, and the various dilemmas that cost-cutting poses in the context of Swarthmore. Check it out.

He does a nice job of outlining the 'you first' dilemma in accepting cost reductions. Basically, if my area goes without in the name of austerity and your area doesn't, then my area has been played for a sucker. He suggests that detailed and rigorous transparency can build confidence that nobody is free-riding on anybody else's cuts, and that without that kind of confidence, small cuts are unlikely to stick.

I fully agree about the free-rider problem, and the inanity of a blanket 'use it or lose it' policy on line items. (Anyone who has endured multiple cycles of hurry-up-and-spend at the end of a fiscal year knows the insanity of that drill.) I tend to doubt that the level of 'granularity' he advocates will generate the clarity he envisions – in my experience, there aren't many more effective ways to make people tune out than to trot out the spreadsheets – but the theory is nice.

Burke's post is written from within Swarthmore, and it reflects that context. A private institution with high tuition, plenty of applicants, and a decent endowment can make its own decisions about all kinds of things. It controls most – not all, but most – of the variables relevant to its own budgets. That kind of year-to-year stability makes relatively fine-grained transparency realistic.

At my cc, and at every public institution I know, that's simply not the case. Our budget year starts July 1. We don't know yet what our allocation from the state will be, and we probably won't know for another month or more. The range of possible numbers is staggeringly wide. We don't know, either, how the money from the stimulus will be allocated, or what the rules for its use will be. (At this point, as I understand it, the money will go to the states. That means that we have to wait for the state to decide how to allocate it. What could possibly go wrong?) We don't cap enrollments, so we can't just pick a target population size and multiply it by tuition to get a magic number. The range of unknowns, usually wide, is particularly so this year.

When the genuine unknowns in your budget add up to millions, it's hard to have intelligent conversations about cuts of a couple thousand here and there. They may be absolutely crucial, or they may be helpful but not urgent, or they may be superfluous; there's really no way of knowing yet. By the time we'll know for certain, we'll have so little time to make decisions that we pretty much have to have already made them. And if you think getting everybody to accept a cost-cutting plan is difficult, try getting everybody to accept multiple contingency cost-cutting plans.

Transparency in cost-cutting gets even more difficult when it goes from 'let's take a look at staff retreats' to 'let's take a look at staff.' When you get to that second level, it's difficult to keep the conversation from getting personal and heated, since those are people's livelihoods at stake. If you decide to reduce the staff in the tutoring center from five to four, people will figure out pretty darn fast who the fifth staffer is. At that point, the dynamics of the conversation change fundamentally.

I've been as open as I can be, and so has the 'finance' side of the house, in discussing the scenarios as they look likeliest to play out. But the kind of conversation Tim Burke advocates – charging a few bucks to use a tennis court, say – is just not realistic here. Still water can be transparent. But the water here is rushing so fast that even purity doesn't make it clear.