Feeling frustrated and exhausted from your recently completed budget season? If so, you’re not alone. For most institutions, the budget cycle takes six months or more to complete, and one-quarter of institutions spent 11 months or longer on their 2020-21 budgets.
A long budget cycle isn’t just tedious and drawn-out; it can also take time away from other critical priorities and ultimately result in an outdated and unreliable financial plan. Worse, by the time the budget is complete, it’s about time to start the process all over again.
To shorten and streamline your next budget cycle, take action now and evaluate your current processes. Use these five strategies to make your university budget cycle more efficient.
1. Automate your budgeting process with modern technology
Many institutions still use Excel spreadsheets as the primary tool to develop their annual budget. With this offline approach to budgeting, institutions spend most of their time gathering historical data, managing inputs and assumptions, and routing spreadsheets through the approval process. Managing a budget this way is inefficient, error-prone, and lacks a meaningful audit trail.
To increase efficiency and shift the focus from organizing data to analyzing it, colleges and universities need to leverage modern technology for their budget process. Employing a solution that automatically consolidates data, manages planning assumptions, and provides real-time reporting will pay significant dividends. Not only will automation and reporting reduce the manual effort required to produce the annual budget, but it will also allow the institution to evaluate options more clearly and make better, quicker decisions.
2. Ensure all relevant data is available in one place
To make truly informed decisions, administrators need to review a range of supporting information, such as enrollment and tuition statistics, payroll and position data, grants data, and detailed prior year actuals. Typically, however, this information resides in disparate systems across the institution, lengthening budget cycles as users hunt for critical data and inputs from multiple departments.
An enterprise planning solution solves these challenges by securely aggregating data from multiple source systems in one place, allowing users to quickly and easily access a range of financial and non-financial data for analysis, reporting, and planning. As department heads and end users update those sources of information throughout the year, revised inputs are reflected in the financial planning solution. This ensures that the budget incorporates up-to-date, real-time actuals.
3. Get the right people involved, but only when they need to be
Developing a viable financial plan requires buy-in from multiple key stakeholders. Frequently, financial leaders give every stakeholder a chance to weigh in, whether or not they have a perspective. This often results in waiting, delays, and wasted time during the budget approval process.
Automated workflows and web-based collaboration tools give universities a powerful solution for navigating the decentralized decision-making environment in higher education. These tools automatically route the budget through each department’s specific organizational hierarchy, allow for conditional approvals (e.g., new FTE requests are sent to HR for special approval), and provide real-time tracking and reminders. By automating the process, colleges and universities can reap the benefits of distributed decision-making without slowing down the budget cycle.
4. Spend time and effort on strategic activities
Many university expenses are predictable from one year to the next. So why spend so much time on open-ended planning processes that require input and analysis into every line item, every year?
Significant time and effort can be saved throughout the budget cycle by starting with a base budget that reflects historical actuals and an agreed-upon inflationary increase. This practice shifts the analytical focus to strategic investments beyond the base budget. To reduce the risk of waste, zero-based budget models can be used for highly variable expenses (e.g., travel, consulting services) and periodic departmental reviews. On balance, the finance department will spend more time performing meaningful analysis, and end users will experience a budget process that feels less bureaucratic.
5. Use the long-range plan to set high-level budget targets
While utilizing a base budget will help streamline the budget process from the bottom up, colleges and universities also need a clear indication of the high-level financial guideposts around their overall annual budget submission. The most logical place to find these high-level targets is the university’s long-range financial plan.
As long-range strategic and financial planning becomes more common in higher education, institutions should follow the best practice to directly integrate the annual budget with the long-range plan. Ideally, the two planning processes are completed on the same platform so the university can leverage consistent data, assumptions, hierarchies, and planning outputs. With this approach, the institution can save significant time on planning processes to create financial plans that align more closely with an institution’s strategic goals.
Axiom™ Budgeting and Forecasting incorporates best-practice budget methodologies to support efficient, accurate, and transparent budget development. The solution helps college and university leaders streamline the budgeting process and collaborate across departments, functions, and schools with an integrated platform that provides a single source of truth for budgeting and planning data.