Freedom at Work: The 2%.

Posted by jlubans on June 26, 2013

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“Open books” or open budgets are among the must-haves in the democratic work place. Trust can be strengthened and, once the staff see where the money is going, how it is spent, they are better able to conserve resources and use them wisely. However, with most open budgets, staff are limited to looking, not touching. I think staff should have the opportunity to influence the budget, to influence how the money is spent. When you get to help decide how the money is spent you will develop a much greater understanding about the budget, that “quantitative prediction of the future.”
Reality intrudes: Most, if not all, of the new budget is already spent, already obligated, already committed, leaving few dollars for new equipment, new programs. The costs of salaries, benefits, books, subscriptions, equipment, do not diminish over time, they invariably increase. Indeed, “benefits” alone can drain resources away from the other categories, robbing Peter to pay Paul. In reasonable times, the budget is almost always incremental; it increases a percent or two and programs continue, largely undisturbed. It seems that only in a crisis can the budget be used as a force for change, forcing us to make those long delayed, uncomfortable decisions. While that may be what it takes, it would have been far better for the organization to have the courage to confront change rather than to have it forced upon the library, to be told, “You have 5% less this year, deal with it”.
One approach to break up the incremental organization is through involving staff in planning for the future. My book gives an example of doing this. Here’s a quote from Chapter 26: You Can’t Build a Fire in the Rain: Sparking Change in Libraries:
“The underlying theory behind the FS (future search) is that if you get enough good people together, they can decide what needs doing for their organization and then go about doing it.
Envisioning the future is the first step to getting there. The FS includes a large number of stakeholders: selected staff Haves and Have-nots along with invited guests like customers. For the academic library this group would include students, faculty, and board members. (My FSs numbered over sixty participants each.) This mix is the difference maker, because for an intense two days, we sidelined the pecking order, with good and bad ideas coming from all over. Good ideas are supported on their merit and not by the status of the suggestion maker. Invariably, there are enough positive people in the mix to assuage the uncertainty and trepidation some participants—often proponents for the status quo—might be feeling. Cannot becomes can do.”

But, and it is a big but, many FSs conclude inconclusively – at least those conducted at institutions not on life support. My FS groups developed imaginative and expensive scenarios for desirable futures but largely stalled when it came time to decide what to give up to fund the future. That is not necessarily bad. As indicated in the above quote, the FS did in one case lead to a dawning realization – initially resisted by many - that the digital library was indeed the future and that we had to re-allocate funds for e-resources and more money for hardware and for systems staff and that it would have to come out of hide (OOH!) The upper administration, however sympathetic, made it clear that there would be no new money. We brokered a deal with the administration to keep salary savings and went about systematically holding positions open in order to put more resources toward the digital future. In many ways this put us on the right road well ahead of our peer libraries who continued to delay and to deny for several years more.

The 2%. Writing about opening the “books” and reading about participatory budgeting, and blogging about bee decision-making, and Vermont town meetings in which citizens debate and decide a town’s budget, lead me to make a pragmatic and practical suggestion: The 2%, a way to find “new” money for programs and equipment. How it works is that the organization holds back 2% of the total budget, in all lines. Easily said, you scoff, but how would you really do this? Pretty much like what I described above for that one library: make small sacrifices to gain big resources – including a new vision - for the future. But, only on the condition that the 2% goes to an Innovation Fund, visible to all staff. Of course, be sure all share holders understand what you are doing and why.
If your upper administration is enthusiastic about your plan, ask them to help out with a “thrift” match. Include them in the solution. So, once the money starts to trickle into the Innovation Fund, how do you decide what gets supported? I suggest you borrow from the Participatory Budgeting process and allow staff – certainly all those how have touched the 2% - to make proposals for all to see, to publicly lobby for them, and then to vote. I recommend that the vote should be anonymous and that the results are binding, not advisory. Repeat, annually.

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