In this article, I explain what end-of-cycle review is about and how leaders can use the process to better manage program implementation and resource allocations. You might find this discussion on some key concepts of Cycle-based Budgeting helpful as a reference.
End-of-cycle (EOC) is an opportunity created in cycle-based budgeting (CBB) to routinely scrutinize existing investment items for continuation and/or adjustments. When an item reaches its end of investment cycle, two things must take place. One is that the investment must be reviewed based on certain criteria. The other is that a decision must be made about the action(s) to be taken on the investment item.
There are two principal EOC review criteria. The first is alignment with organizational priorities. Notably, such priorities may change as an organization makes strategic shifts. The second is academic return on investment (AROI). The concept of AROI entails an examination of the extent to which goals set at the approval stage of an investment item have been achieved. Apart from these two primary criteria, leaders may consider additional factors when reviewing EOC items, such as cost per pupil, political support, feasibility of implementation, and coherence with other investments (see this article for a detailed discussion).
Following the review, decision makers have a variety of action options for an EOC item. Beyond supporting the traditional dichotomous choice of continuation versus discontinuation, CBB offers leaders more instruments for managing implementation and greater flexibility in allocating resources to improve cost-effectiveness. Specifically, leaders can apply four policy levers, independently or jointly, in the areas of goal, scale, investment cycle, and budget (See Figure1 below).
First, leaders may request that EOC investment item owners reset item goals (i.e., expected returns). A reset of this type might involve changes in outcome measures and/or target outcomes. For instance, if an EOC item falls short of expected performance, the investment owner could maintain the same outcome measure(s) but set a more realistic goal to attain; or adopt a new outcome measure that is more appropriate for measuring success and aim at a new goal accordingly. For an EOC item that succeeds in achieving its goal, the investment owner could retain the goal and focus efforts on ensuring that the investment sustains its impact long-term (See Five Issues around Using Academic Return on Investment (A-ROI) to Inform and Improve Decisions: Part I – Validity for detail); or establish a more aspiring goal aimed at achieving a higher return on investment.
Second, adjustments to scale of implementation can be considered such as the number of participants or schools served by the investment. For example, leaders can scale back an EOC investment item to focus on students for whom the data indicate the program is most effective. For schools that lack the necessary conditions needed for program success, leaders can discontinue the program and employ a different strategy that might be more appropriate. Based on a deeper understanding of context-specific student needs, such adjustments capitalize on evidence to adapt investment strategies. It is a better continuous improvement approach than continuing to expend resources on services that do not meet student needs. Conversely, if an EOC investment item is effective, districts may choose to expand the program to cover more schools or include additional student groups for whom the program might be beneficial.
Third, a repeated or adjusted investment cycle can be enacted to enable another round of implementation/improvement and review. Whether to adjust the length of the investment cycle depends on how soon district leaders want to examine the investment again and for what purpose. As an example, if an unsuccessful EOC item failed to follow implementation guidelines during the last investment cycle, leaders may impose a shorter timeframe for the new investment cycle and, at the same time, set the goal to focus on specific implementation benchmarks. This adjustment helps district leaders makes sure that the program can be implemented with fidelity, which is necessary for success, before further investing in it. If an EOC item meets its goal, leaders might arrange a longer new investment cycle to make certain that the success will sustain without short-term accountability pressure.
Fourth, leaders can alter the budget allocated to an EOC investment item. The adjustment might correspond to changes made to goal and scale discussed above. Another basis for adjustment are actual expenditures given that the budget is usually based on estimation and rarely matches actual spending. For example, if an EOC item never spent more than 70% of its budget throughout the investment cycle, it probably makes sense to reduce the budget accordingly so that limited resources can be used for other needs rather than sitting idle on the account.
As previously mentioned, each of the above four action options, or levers, is a policy tool that leaders can use to directly or indirectly influence implementation and make flexible adjustments to resource allocations. A well-defined, attainable goal based on EOC review data provides a clear direction and renewed, evidence-based hope for investment success. Change in participation often means new schedules, fresh student groups, and sometimes reshuffling staff, all of which are opportunities to improve focus and service delivery. For the same investment, its owner and program staff will be pressured to focus on delivering a quick win with a short investment cycle, but might adopt an alternative strategy that aims at greater long-term impact when more time is available. Budget puts constraints on all things operational and can force people to be more intentional about why certain spending is necessary for improved student outcomes.
Together, these four action levers allow leaders to design powerful policy interventions, depending on evidence, context, and their priorities, to ensure optimal use of limited resources. An example is given below to demonstrate how combinations of these action options can be employed through multiple investment cycles to make the best use of limited resources to improve student achievement:
District A has invested in a reading program for two investment cycles. At the end of the first EOC review, the program was found to be successful in ten schools (Group 1), but ineffective in five schools (Group 2). District leaders decided to put the program on another investment cycle. For Group 1 schools that saw returns, goals and target populations remained unchanged. For Group 2 schools that lacked returns, however, a new focus was placed on a narrower cohort of students (i.e., target population) with the goal adjusted accordingly. The budget and investment cycle were kept the same.
At the end of the second EOC review, it was found that success sustained in Group 1 schools. Among Group 2 schools where adjustments were made, the adjusted goal was met at one school but remained unattainable at the other four schools. After seeing sustained returns in Group 1 schools and newly found success in one Group 2 school, district leaders saw no need to scrutinize the program on a regular basis and decided to convert the investment into an operation item in these eleven schools. For the four Group 2 schools, the program was deemed not a good fit and thus discontinued. District leaders charged the Teaching and Learning Department with developing new strategies to support reading intervention in those four schools, which may or may not require new investments.
Ideally, three things can be achieved from an EOC review process: 1) investments that are ineffective or no longer aligned with priorities are re-invested; 2) investments that have not yet delivered returns but are worth more time or need another opportunity are put on a path to success, with criteria and timeframe set for the next review; and 3) investments with high returns are recognized and potentially duplicated or expanded to benefit more students.
It should be noted that some investments probably will remain funded or even receive expansion due to their political favor, regardless of the EOC review results. When such investments do not achieve their stated goals, the power of CBB lies in repeatedly scheduled EOC reviews and continuous tracking of all improvement efforts and subsequent outcomes. No investment is politically popular forever and the CBB process ensures that there is always a next EOC review. When forces behind a politically charged investment are no longer present, EOC gives leaders the opportunity to make the best decision without the undue influences. Sometimes, with mounting evidence, a change of heart is possible. Some leaders might soften their original unwavering stance or withdraw support toward a program when presented with outcome data showing discrepancies between stagnant or even worsening student outcomes and continued or increased investment. At the very least, the cumulative evidence will empower people to raise questions over those inconvenient truth regarding the program.
The primary goal of CBB is to improve rather than cut. Continuous improvement requires conducting constant examinations of programs and making incremental changes based on evidence. With EOC and other components, CBB offers a model that helps organize collaboration among departments to practice continuous improvement in a systematic way. When cuts are necessary, CBB provides a way for leaders to not lose track or sacrifice political capital to make informed and persuasive decisions.