By Tim Ammon
Congratulations: you are making it through the pandemic. Now you get the opportunity to begin thinking about how the pandemic-related economic disruption will start impacting your budget. You will be doing this in the context of school re-starts, expanding service expectations, and pent-up frustrations with lockdowns, shutdowns, and schedule changes. Faced with this challenge, how will you prepare yourself for what is likely to be the most difficult budget environment in a decade?
We cannot be Pollyannish though about the difficulties that transportation departments will face. We will see hundreds to thousands of instances where departments are challenged to “be more efficient.” What does this really mean? In most instances, this means you should provide the same amount of services with less money, fewer drivers, older buses, and the same or higher expectations. For us to be able to meet this challenge we need to be clear-eyed about what tools and opportunities we have to reduce, control and manage transportation costs.
The key issue with most public sector, and many private sector, budgets is that they are backward looking. They assume last year’s expenditures plus some amount should address next year’s demand for services. Making that assumption for next year will be particularly problematic. Consequently, our first challenge will be whether we can turn the process around to be forward looking. Looking forward, what does it mean when a vaccine returns things to some normalcy? Looking forward, how will the changes instituted this year, including the idea that it might be safer and easier for parents to transport their kids, impact demand for services? Looking forward, can we identify how much transportation people will want to pay for especially if costs are rising and revenues are dropping? Changing the questions we ask and how we frame the transportation budgeting process will be the first big challenge of the budget season.
Our next critical task will be aligning expectations with requirements. Too often, transportation managers make miracles happen without explaining the difficulties and machinations necessary for those miracles to occur. It is imperative that we clearly articulate what is required to actually implement common cost-cutting expectations like changing bell times, consolidating stops, lengthening school bus rides, and revising boundaries. None of this comes “free” and we need to be involved enough in the budget process to explain how changes in transportation funding will impact students, parents, school administrators, and school employees.
Our third key task will be addressing the effectiveness of three key areas of our operations:
Conducting a critical review of how you do business will be imperative. The processes that exist in every organization are a combination of deliberate thought, historical practice, and happenstance. When resources become constrained it is imperative that we separate what we do now from what we should be doing. Process improvements often appear to be less impactful than other efforts like bell time changes, but a failure to improve process makes it much more likely that the bell time changes will not result in the savings you expect.
Who we are is just as important as how we operate. We also must determine whether our organization reflects the challenges we will face or the challenges we have faced. There are few more consequential decisions than those that affect the livelihoods of our staff, but we must have the organizational discipline to ensure that we have the right people in the right places to meet the financial and operational challenges to come.
Technology availability and use will be a key component of every effort to evaluate cost saving opportunities. The more difficult the budget challenge we face the more we need to maximize both the scope and effectiveness of our technology use. However, we need to be careful about assuming the technology gives us the answer versus its ability to enable us to find an answer. The ability to go beyond tweaking stops, runs, and routes and using GPS to figure out if we are late will be imperative. This is likely to require investments in training and analytical capabilities at a time when making those investment is the most difficult. Finding a way to partner with your vendors and increase the skills of your staff must be a very near-term imperative.
The budget crisis that districts will face in the coming months represents an enormous second challenge for directors. Clearly defining the requirements to meet expectations and assessing the requirements of process, organization, and technology will be of paramount importance. The resilience of our organizations will be determined by how we address these joint crises. There is no time like yesterday to get started to make sure you can meet the challenge of tomorrow.
Tim Ammon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a co-founder of Decision Support Group. He has been providing consulting services to public and private sector clients for nearly 25 years. His special focus has been assisting organizations with issue identification and designing improvement strategies. Visit
www.decisionsupportgroup.com for more information.