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Business Officer Magazine

Help Them to Tell It Like It Is

Want feedback on your institution’s budget and finance processes, but unsure how to get it? Try starting with questions developed by American University when campus leaders embarked on ways to stay ahead of the curve of unanticipated challenges.

By Nana An and Erica Smith

Although American University, Washington, D.C., has maintained a relatively strong position during the Great Recession, the institution did not want to fall behind simply because the next tumultuous times were not yet in full view. Rather, we decided to use a pilot project, based on the Excellence in Higher Education (EHE) model formulated on the Baldrige National Quality Program, to simulate the sense of urgency that budgetary tumult can provide.

To facilitate the kind of discussion that would provide the finance department with valuable feedback on potential plans, the university budget office staff developed a list of probing questions based on the "Topics to Be Considered" content for each EHE category as identified in NACUBO's Excellence in Higher Education Workbook and Scoring Guide.


EHE category

What to ask


  • Are leadership, governance structure, and operational structure in the area of budget and finance clearly defined and understood?
  • Follow up by asking for comments, examples, or suggestions for improvement.

Purposes and plans

  • Do budget and finance processes support the university's mission, vision, values, and strategic plan priorities? Is there a clear linkage?
  • From your perspective, is there effective communication to support budget and finance process?
  • Are budget and finance processes, timelines, procedures, and so forth, clear?
  • Do you have suggestions for improving communication relative to the budget process?

Beneficiaries and constituencies

  • In providing services, do you have the sense that budget and finance offices do a good job of dealing with, anticipating, and being prepared to meet the future needs of your division? Provide examples.
  • Do you have suggestions for additional approaches that might be helpful to you for providing feedback to budget and finance offices?
  • [To unit budget and financial managers] Do you have a clear sense of the needs and expectations of the individuals, groups, and departments you serve? Are there some general needs and expectations that transcend the various groups you deal with?

Programs and services

  • Are core programs and services regularly evaluated to determine whether they should be expanded, enhanced, contracted, or eliminated?
  • What opportunities exist to develop and apply innovative approaches to budget and finance processes?
  • What alternate models could be considered to gain efficiency and reinvest savings in core needs?
  • Are faculty members completing an increasing number of administrative tasks? Is this limiting their ability to focus on research?
  • Are business processes widely varied across campus, making the transition to automation difficult?

Faculty/staff and workplace


  • What additional skills or competencies do you think unit budget and financial managers should develop to support the long-term direction of your division/school?
  • [To unit budget and financial managers] What topics should be covered in an orientation for new budget and financial managers?

Assessment and information use

  • Are the resources (human, technological, and so on) necessary to assess the achievement of outcomes available?
  • Is the university achieving the critical outcomes for budget and finance processes?

Outcomes and achievements

  • Do the following support or hinder achievement of critical outcomes for budget and finance processes: leadership; purposes and plans; beneficiaries; programs and services; faculty/staff workforce; and assessment?
  • Follow up by asking for comments or suggestions for improvement.

This approach resulted in discussion that helped identify improvement projects that collectively spanned all six EHE categories within the university's budget and finance processes. We expected the assessment to reveal challenges we'd noted earlier, but the participants identified many additional issues—along with 26 creative solutions to address them.

For further details of the pilot project, see "Staying Out in Front," in the January 2012 issue of Business Officer.

NANA AN is assistant vice president of university budget and finance resource center, office of finance, and ERICA SMITH is senior budget officer, university budget office, American University, Washington, D.C.

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