Break the Use It or Lose It Cycle

Six strategies for curbing undisciplined technology spending.

I had just taken the position of director of technology at a new district and was making "get acquainted" rounds at the 10 schools in my charge. While visiting the library at the first building on my stop, I noticed a wall stacked with dozens of software boxes, binders, and manuals. The school had amassed an extraordinary collection of tools, including what appeared to be every title ever published by Sunburst and Knowledge Adventure.

Many of the boxes and binders looked brand new and some had never been opened. And despite a thorough search on the school's network to see what resources were available, I spotted only a few of the titles I had seen on the wall. The resident technology resource teacher's explanation was a familiar story. "We had to buy something," she said. "We're told if we don't spend every dollar in our budget, it will be lost. And worse, we're told that our budget will be cut for the next year because the district will think we don't need as much."

After that incident I was determined to limit last-minute expenditures not focused on meeting our goals. Here's how I did it, and how you can too.

Scrub budgets clean. The purpose of a budget is to ensure that just enough resources are allocated to accomplish a set of goals. A budget need not include extra funds. You can reduce unfocused spending at the end of a budget cycle by eliminating extra funding at the beginning of the cycle. Start by looking at spending patterns over the past three years. Money spent in the last few days or weeks of the budget cycle is probably not being used efficiently.

Track by objective, not time. Budgeting does not have to be driven solely by the annual calendar. School technology leaders should present budget requests in terms of projects and goals, such as "Laptop Upgrade" or "HyperStudio Expansion." If a project ends with a surplus, figure out how to most effectively use the balance to support your goals.

Reject unfocused expenditures. Don't be afraid to be tough. CIOs should reject spending requests that are not tied directly to institutional goals. Ask your staff to justify any questionable expenses against established priorities. Teach them that an approved budget is not a license to spend down to zero.

Provide incentives to spend under budget. Building technology leaders in my district had no motivation to limit spending once the budget was set. A better model is to reward managers with bonuses when they underspend their budgets while producing high-quality results. While giving financial bonuses can be tricky, you may be able to provide enticements such as participation in pilot programs of new technologies. If you're going to do this, however, it's essential to establish clear performance targets. The last thing you want is a manager who skimps on spending in order to receive a reward while undercutting organizational objectives in the process.

Invest extra funds in useful materials. Efficient organizations frequently produce budget surpluses. Sometimes it's acceptable and desirable to use a surplus, especially on items that cannot become obsolete (e.g. toner, cleaning kits, and paper). A small surplus of these kinds of supplies can reduce pressure on future projects and improve overall performance.

Contribute to fund balances. Too often we work for the good of our own departmental goals without due consideration of the overall needs of the organization. Simply put, surpluses are good for everyone and deficits are bad for everyone. If you can contribute to an organizational fund balance by returning budget surpluses at the end of the year, you're adding to the health of the institution and positioning it for greater future successes.

Todd McIntire is vice president of Edison Schools. This article was originally published in School CIO.