A British Library funded research project at the University of Surrey Library is using a questionnaire and a number of case studies to investigate devolved budgets. The work is being carried out in collaboration with David Haynes Associates and Information Management Associates. A full report will be published shortly, but some interesting issues have already emerged.
One of the fundamental points that has arisen from the study is the varied understanding of what devolved budgeting actually means. Bearing in mind that each institution is different, one of the early challenges was to identify some working definitions on which the research could be based. The approach to this has been to propose a number of structural models. These range from a scenario where there is devolution of complete responsibility for buying library materials and services from the institutional centre directly to the schools, to the model where the library itself devolves financial responsibility for the purchase of resources to schools or faculties . The models can be viewed on the project web site:
Directors of information services and chief librarians have always been interested in money: where it comes from, where it goes and how it has been spent. A number of factors have strengthened the need for this sort of financial information to be more widely available, in an open and transparent manner, within organisations. In recent years, some academic libraries have implemented a process of devolved budgeting in collaboration with academic schools and departments within their institutions.
It is possible to speculate on the driving forces behind these initiatives: a direct response to institutional funding allocation reviews; in response to national assessment procedures such as the Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) and Research Assessment Exercises (RAE); parallel developments in increasingly competitive internal/external markets; or simply to satisfy perceived needs to improve internal budgetary mechanisms, provide accountability and ensure that library resources are allocated to appropriate cost centres in a democratic but effective manner.
The results so far indicate that the main reasons for the introduction of devolved budgeting were to establish a partnership between academic departments and libraries, to provide a transparent allocation methodology and to provide financial accountability. Some other more questionable reasons included making life easier for the librarian, and fashion. Not surprisingly, there were some equally valid and persuasive reasons for not introducing this form of budgeting. The favourites were to do with institutional policy, the need to retain budgetary control at the centre, and the potential for damaging services.
Resource allocation methods based on FTEs with some historical precedents were common. A formulaic approach was used frequently and comments suggested that this was an extremely complex area which is currently taxing a great number of people!
The project found that budgets for textbooks, periodicals, abstracts and indexes and electronic resources were most likely to be devolved. The survey suggested the problem areas were multi-disciplinary resources, academic mismanagement or indifference, the arbitrary nature of allocation criteria and materials of general interest. The case studies have confirmed that these are important issues but have also highlighted some other pitfalls. Providing materials for self-funding courses was seen as a difficulty. Even more complex issues arose with split funding of courses such as health sciences where some funding may come from NHS Trusts. Electronic resources, especially the networking element of the cost, brought their own specific dilemmas.
The project team also investigated whether devolved budgeting was perceived to have any effect on strategic planning. Some informative responses demonstrated both positive and negative feelings. On the positive side devolved budgeting was seen to underpin agreed policies such as an emphasis on access rather than local holdings and was also seen to aid planning for new services. Some negative comments suggested that devolved budgeting undermined the effectiveness of planned development of the whole collection and inhibited a strategic approach to the acquisition of electronic resources. There were also some mixed views. One institution reported that on the positive side devolved budgeting has demonstrated the library's commitment to open and transparent resource allocation, while the downside is an increasingly poor fit with the hybrid print/electronic environment.
During the case studies a selection of people, including academic staff, finance managers and a range of library and information personnel, were interviewed. The case studies have all shown that an overarching element in the effectiveness of devolving budgetary responsibility is the success of the liaison between the appropriate library or information staff and the academic staff. This is clearly a critical aspect which libraries must get right if an effective partnership is to be achieved with the schools/faculties. The roles of subject/liaison librarians are changing from being occupied with traditional duties such as book selection and classification to more dynamic and proactive functions. The tutor/trainer elements are rapidly developing and librarians are adopting more of a consultative approach to providing information.
On the other side of the fence, being a library representative within a department has traditionally had low status. This is changing, especially with the move towards converged services in some institutions and the increased responsibilities of the library committee. Within a collaborative and professional working environment, mutual respect is essential. The library staff have the opportunity to influence and promote the concept of an academic library agent, representative or working group (not an old-style committee) as the main channel for communication, negotiation, information and discussion. This is not a new idea but simply the extension and development of an existing one to provide vital infrastructure support for the devolved budgeting process.
The importance of a detailed management accounting system has been stressed on several occasions during interviews and this also is vital in providing sound financial information to all parties.
Although the Final Report is currently being drafted, the overall picture that is emerging from the research is that devolved budgeting can be a productive way of working in partnership with academic schools/faculties but that a resilient infrastructure in terms of liaison mechanisms and accounting procedures is vital for success.
Project web site: