Washington County is the second largest of 36 counties in the State of Oregon. As of the 2010 census, its population was 529,710 and its largest city Hillsboro had a population of 91,611. With a $1.2 billion total budget proposed for 2018-19 to include investments in infrastructure, transportation and affordable housing to name a few, the county's budget department has 'its work cut out for it.'
The county's budget book spans more than 300 pages. It took four of the team's six staff members approximately 75% of their time from March through the end of June to prepare. Links to Excel in Word documents would routinely break or malfunction randomly; these errors plagued their processes as they would change numbers in multiple locations unexpectedly.
We interviewed Washington County to learn their thoughts on the budget book automation project we completed with them in 2018 (see the book that resulted here). Here are the highlights:
Q. What was your business process to tackle the Budget Book previously, how much time did it take and why did you want to switch?
A. Our process was to download information into an Excel Spreadsheet after the information was entered in Questica, open a series of Word Documents by our Functional Area’s then link the spreadsheet that pertained to a specific Org Unit to the correct page in the Word Document, write the budget analysis and present to the Deputy County Administrators for their review and input. As the Deputy County Administrators recommended changes, the changes would be entered in Questica, downloaded into Excel, update the links, reprint the page for further review. At the end of all the changes then the summary sheets would need to be redone with new downloads, the prior links were updated, the budget analysis sections would need to be proofed to verify the words and numbers matched the linked tables. Then after the Budget Summary Book was completed for the public hearing it would need to be re-done after the year-end changes and impacts changed by the budget committees before it was produced as an Adopted Budget Summary in July. This took four staff members approximately 75% of their time from March through the end of June. The desire to switch to a different process was generated as a result of the Excel links in the Word Documents continued to break or malfunction randomly, the mistakes that would plague the process due to changing numbers in multiple locations and a desire to automate some of the processes, standardize language and writing style and have increased confidence in the final numbers in all reports.
Q. What other solutions did you consider? How did you hear about FHB, and what were the key factors in choosing our solution over the others?
A. We looked at a few other solutions that were more of a publication software style and did not link to Questica or provide number checking abilities. Two staff members were able to attend the Questica conference two years ago and watched a demonstration from FHBlack on the ability to link Questica to preparation of the Budget Summary Book. In addition, Questica sales representatives assisted us with finding other agencies who had implemented CaseWare as a CAFR solution. The key factors for our selection were the interface ability to link CaseWare to Questica and the standardization of programmed sentences and fonts.
Q. Were you initially concerned about working remotely or working with a Canadian company?
A. We had very limited experience working 100% remotely on software implementations so yes, we did have some reservations at the start. We had no concerns about working with a Canadian company.
Q. What process did you follow to implement CaseWare and how did you feel the implementation went? Perhaps provide a summary of the process?
A. We used the consultant for all implementation of the software and preparation of the past year Budget Summary Book. We met weekly during the development and provided results of queries from Questica that the consultant built. The consultant was given access to our systems or was able to direct us on what was needed during our webinar sessions. All sessions were attended by the County team so that we were all learning about the software, provided the consultant information on how our budget process worked, accounting structure, how the software used the data to provide the summary pages, spreadsheet view, pictures, and how other outside the system documents were added. We were then able to work more independently when putting together the new year budget summary with the assistance of the consultant. The consultant was very knowledgeable about CaseWare and was an invaluable partner in the successful implementation of the software. He was very adept at learning our account structures, setting up what was needed and provided a best practices approach to how the book went together. He was great at problem-solving and thinking outside the box to find solutions that benefited our project. The implementation was successful and the experience was one of the best we have encountered.
Q. How many team members at the County worked with the CaseWare Budget Book Solution
A. We had six staff members on the County team, a Project Manager, Chief Financial Officer, Controller and three other budget analysts.
Q. From your perspective, how is the County in a better position now as compared to with your old solution? Is the process faster? What are the biggest benefits? Could you estimate the time savings or provide any examples.
A. We are just now about ready to begin our second actual year of preparation of the Budget Summary book. Our process starts with getting the budget into Questica before we can begin using CaseWare. We envision that the process to interface the needed information from Questica to CaseWare will go smoothly. The interface is required in order to prepare the first draft of the summary pages with the financial information linking smoothly. We do plan to use the consultant to assist us with the initial conversion to the new fiscal year so that we have clear written directions to complete the process. We believe that the time staff use to put into downloading information into spreadsheets, unhiding rows, adding new organizational units etc. will be better spent providing additional analysis, and free up time to work on other projects that often get delayed during this budget preparation time. One budget analyst is also having time re-directed to assist in the implementation of CaseWare for our CAFR reporting implementation project. I would estimate that we are saving about two of the FTE who were working on this part of the budget development.
Q. What is your perception of our expertise? Specifically, can you speak to our knowledge of:
A. Technology generally and CaseWare/Questica specifically and our specific consultant were very knowledgeable on both the accounting requirements, CaseWare software and Questica information and queries.
Budget Book process & requirements the consultant we used was great and his knowledge of the process and requirements was outstanding. He was able to build our document to meet our needs, troubleshoot issues that arose and make many great suggestions to assist us in this process. The software is complicated enough that I am not sure we would have been successful without his direct work and interventions when we had difficulties.
Q. What was our client service like? Did you feel like we carefully managed the project, knew and met your deadlines? Did you feel like you were well taken care of by your consultant and that your concerns were heard, and your questions answered etc.
A. Client service was great. Some interim project deadlines were allowed to slip by the Chief Financial Officer. However, the overall project deadline was met. The consultant was dedicated to making sure the project was completed and we were happy with the final product. All our concerns and questions were answered by the consultant and his level of patience and willingness to provide additional training were excellent.
From a project perspective, F.H. Black exceeded our expectations. From day 1, their project manager (Darryl Parker) made us believe we were his one and only client. With his deep knowledge in governmental accounting, he had a clear understanding of our practices and challenges. Also, project timelines were clearly communicated. When challenges arose, Darryl seemed to do magic getting us back on track! A true pleasure to work with!
Q. Would you recommend FHB and specifically the CaseWare Budget Book solution to other state or local government finance departments and why?
A. Yes, we would recommend both FHB and CaseWare Budget Book to other jurisdictions. We believe the time savings going forward will more than offset the annual cost for access/licenses. The ability to customize the look and feel of the book to match our prior books, add our own other documents that did not make sense to build into CaseWare including charts and graphs are key to the successful build of our Budget Summary Book.
Q. Do you have plans to tackle any other automation projects (CAFR, monthly, quarterly, state-mandated reports etc.) with CaseWare and FHB? If so, please discuss them and why you feel the county will benefit from these automation projects.
A. We have just begun the implementation project to automate our CAFR. In addition, we have two other departments within the County who are interested in automating some of their quarterly or annual financial reports. The automation of the CAFR is anticipated to save a great deal of staff time chasing down numbers that change during the development of the CAFR. Every time a number changes in the current process causes additional time to find and make the changes in all places impacted. CaseWare will carry through the changes to all needed tables/pages so that this additional review time will be saved. The other departments see the value of this software and are excited to develop projects to assist them with meeting their reporting needs.
Watch this Space
Want to know more? Watch this space for a detailed interview with the county highlighting their experience and the difference an automated budget book has made to their organization. If you want to be informed when the full interview is released, subscribe to our blog.