Zero-based budgeting is an approach to planning and decision-making that reverses the working process of traditional budgeting. In traditional incremental budgeting departmental managers justify only variances versus past years based on the assumption that the “baseline” is automatically approved. By contrast, in zero-based budgeting, every line item of the budget must be approved, rather than only changes. Zero-based budgeting requires that the budget request be re-evaluated thoroughly, starting from the zero-base; this involves preparation of a fresh budget every year without reference to the past. This process is independent of whether the total budget or specific line items are increasing or decreasing.
The term is sometimes confused with “zero-sum budgeting”, a personal finance technique of budgeting every unit of income received, and then adjusting some part of that budget downward for every other part that needs to be adjusted upward.
Zero based budgeting also refers to the identification of a task or tasks and then funding resources to complete the task independent of current resourcing.
- Efficient allocation of resources, as it is based on needs and benefits rather than history.
- Drives managers to find cost effective ways to improve operations.
- Detects inflated budgets.
- Increases staff motivation by providing greater initiative and responsibility in decision-making.
- Increases communication and coordination within the organization.
- Identifies and eliminates wasteful and obsolete operations.
- Identifies opportunities for outsourcing.
- Forces cost centers to identify their mission and their relationship to overall goals.
- Facilitates more effective delegation of authority
Zero-based budgeting helps in identifying areas of wasteful expenditure, and if desired, can also be used for suggesting alternative courses of action.
- More time-consuming than incremental budgeting.
- Justifying every line item can be problematic for departments with intangible outputs.
- Requires specific training, due to increased complexity vs. incremental budgeting.
- In a large organization, the amount of information backing up the budgeting process may be overwhelming.
Use in the public sector
Zero Base Budgeting (ZBB) in the public sector and the private sector are very different processes, and this must be understood when implementing a ZBB process in the public sector. “The use of ZBB in the private sector has been limited primarily to administrative overhead activities (i.e. administrative expenses needed to maintain the organization…)”.For example, Peter Pyhrr used ZBB successfully at Texas Instruments in the 1960s and authored an influential 1970 article in Harvard Business Review. In 1973, President Jimmy Carter, while governor of Georgia, contracted with Pyhrr to implement a ZBB system for the State of Georgia executive budget process.
President Carter later required the adoption of ZBB by the federal government during the late 1970s. “Zero-Base Budgeting (ZBB) was an executive branch budget formulation process introduced into the federal government in 1977. Its main focus was on optimizing accomplishments available at alternative budgetary levels. Under ZBB agencies were expected to set priorities based on the program results that could be achieved at alternative spending levels, one of which was to be below current funding.”
According to Peter Sarant, the former director of management analysis training for the US Civil Service Commission during the Carter ZBB implementation effort, “ZBB means “different things to different people.” Some definitions are implying that zero-base budgeting is the act of starting budgets from scratch or requiring each program or activity to be justified from the ground up. This is not true; the acronym ZBB, is a misnomer. ZBB is a misnomer because in many large agencies a complete zero-base review of all program elements during one budget period is not feasible; it would result in excessive paperwork and be an almost impossible task if implemented.” In many respects the “common misunderstanding” of ZBB noted above resemble a “sunset review” process more than a traditional public sector ZBB process.
According to Sarant, ZBB is a technique which complements and links to existing planning, budgeting and review processes. It identifies alternative and efficient methods of utilizing limited resources . It is a flexible management approach which provides a credible rationale for reallocating resources by focusing on a systematic review and justification of the funding and performance levels of current programs.”
A method of budgeting in which all expenses must be justified for each new period. Zero-based budgeting starts from a “zero base” and every function within an organization is analyzed for its needs and costs. Budgets are then built around what is needed for the upcoming period, regardless of whether the budget is higher or lower than the previous one.
ZBB allows top-level strategic goals to be implemented into the budgeting process by tying them to specific functional areas of the organization, where costs can be first grouped, then measured against previous results and current expectations.
Components of a public sector ZBB analysis
In general there are three components that make up public sector ZBB:
- Identify three alternate funding levels for each decision unit (Traditionally, this has been a zero-base level, a current funding level and an enhanced service level.);
- Determine the impact of these funding levels on program (decision unit) operations using program performance metrics; and
- Rank the program “decision packages” for the three funding levels.
The process was also specifically intended to involve both program staff and budget staff in the process. In many cases, program staffers were asked to look for alternative service delivery models that could deliver services more efficiently at lower funding level.
The US General Accounting Office (GAO) reviewed past performance budgeting initiatives in 1997 and found that ZBBs “main focus was on optimizing accomplishments available at alternative budgetary levels. Under ZBB agencies were expected to:
Set priorities based on the program results that could be achieved at alternative spending levels, one of which was to be below current funding.
- In developing budget proposals, these alternatives were to be ranked against each other sequentially from the lowest level organizations up through the department and without reference to a past budgetary base.
- In concept, ZBB sought a clear and precise link between budgetary resources and program results.”
Further, “ZBB illustrated the usefulness of:
- Defining and presenting alternative funding levels; and
- Expanded participation of program managers in the budget process.”
The federal ZBB budgeting system had the following components: “Budget requests for each decision unit were to be prepared by their managers, who would (1) identify alternative approaches to achieving the unit’s objectives, (2) identify several alternative funding levels, including a “minimum” level normally below current funding, (3) prepare “decision packages” according to a prescribed format for each unit, including budget and performance information, and (4) rank the decision packages against each other.”
ZBB was officially eliminated in federal budgeting on August 7, 1981. “Some participants in the budget process as well as other observers attributed certain program efficiencies, arising from the consideration of alternatives, to ZBB. Interestingly, ZBB established within federal budgeting a requirement to:
- Present alternative levels of funding; and
- Link (them) to alternative results.”
This element of the ZBB budgeting process remained in effect through the Reagan, Bush and early Clinton administrations before being eliminated in 1994.
Defining the government program zero-base
As noted earlier, there is often considerable confusion over the meaning of zero-base budgeting. There is no evidence that public sector ZBB has ever included “building budgets from the bottom up” and “reviewing every invoice” as part of the analysis. In discussions of ZBB, there is often confusion between a ZBB process and a sunset review process. In a sunset review the entire function is eliminated unless evidence is provided of program effectiveness. This confusion ultimately leads to the question: what is a zero-base?
Sarant’s definition of the zero-base based on the federal training experience is: “A minimum level is actually the grass roots funding level necessary to keep a program alive. Therefore, the minimal level is the “program or funding level below which it is not feasible to continue a program… because no constructive contribution can be made toward fulfilling its objective.” Identifying this level of program funding has been subjective and problematic.
Consequently, “some states have selected arbitrary percentages to insure that an amount smaller than last year’s request in considered. They do this by stipulating that one alternative must be 50 or 80 or 90 percent of last year’s request.” This equates to analyzing the impact on program operations of a 10, 20 or 50 percent reduction in funding as the “zero base” funding level.
Importance of performance measures
Performance measures are a key component of the ZBB process. At the core, ZBB requires quality measures that can be used to analyze the impact of alternative funding scenarios on program operations and outcomes. Without quality measures ZBB simply will not work because decision packages cannot be ranked. To perform a ZBB analysis “alternative decision packages are prepared and ranked, thus allowing marginal utility and comparative analysis.”
Traditionally, a ZBB analysis focused on three types of measures. “They (federal agency program staff) were to identify the key indicators to be used in measuring performance and results. These should be “measures of:
- efficiency, and
- workload for each decision unit.
Indirect or proxy indicators could be used if these systems did not exist or were under development.”
Impact of ZBB on Government Operations
According to the GAO:
“Agencies believed that inadequate time had been allowed to implement the new initiative. The requirement to compress planning and budgeting functions within the timeframes of the budget cycle had proven especially difficult, affecting program managers’ ability to identify alternative approaches to accomplishing agency objectives. Some agency officials also believed that the performance information needed for ZBB analysis was lacking.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures:
“In its original sense, ZBB meant that no past decisions are taken for granted. Every previous budget decision is up for review. Existing and proposed programs are on an equal footing, and the traditional state practice of altering almost all existing budget lines by small amounts every year or two would be swept away. No state government has ever found this feasible. Even Georgia, where Governor Jimmy Carter introduced ZBB to state budgeting in 1971, employed a much modified form.
State programs are not, in practice, amenable to such a radical annual re-examination. Statutes, obligations to local governments, requirements of the federal government, and other past decisions have many times created state funding commitments that are almost impossible to change very much in the short run. Education funding levels are determined in many states partly by state and federal judicial decisions and state constitutional provisions, as well as by statutes. Federal mandates require that state Medicaid funding meet a specific minimum level if Medicaid is to exist at all in a state. Federal law affects environmental program spending, and both state and federal courts help determine state spending on prisons. Much state spending, therefore, cannot usefully be subjected to the kind of fundamental re-examination that ZBB in its original form envisions.
To the extent that ZBB has encouraged governors and legislators to take a hard look at the impact of incremental changes in state spending, it produced a significant improvement in state budgeting. But in its classic form – begin all budget evaluations from zero – ZBB is as unworkable as it ever was.”