Chicago Public Schools saved hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars in ACFR preparation costs
|Organization:||Chicago Public Schools|
|Population:||636 Schools with 340,658 Students|
|Solutions:||Workiva Wdesk & Wdata|
|ACFR:||2021 Annual Comprehensive Financial Report|
The dedicated team at Chicago Public Schools (CPS) was fighting a losing battle. A combined one thousand hours of overtime was not enough to prevent missed deadlines, extension requests, and reporting errors. The problem was clear, manually generating the Annual Comprehensive Financial Report (ACFR) with generic tools was extremely inefficient.
"We could not provide the report on time, we tried, and we couldn’t turn it around quick enough to meet our board meeting timeline."
Dongmei Li Assistant Controller-Corporate Accounting at Chicago Public Schools
Using Word and Excel to prepare the ACFR's contents and then compiling it into a PDF meant that nearly every word, number, graph, and chart in the organization's 214-page report had to be manually keyed in. In addition, any time a modification was made, it was down to the finance team to ensure that all associated information was updated in all applicable locations. Not only was this process time-consuming, it left lots of room for errors to creep into the report.
Formatting to exhaustion
Formatting the ACFR is not something often thought about outside the finance department, but those who generate it know it's a monumental task of great importance. A poorly formatted report is challenging to follow, invokes doubt, invites misinterpretation, and often results in poor planning/decision making. For finance departments formatting reports with inadequate tools this represents a relative black-hole of lost time. Typically, financial reports are not simply formatted once. Every seemingly insignificant change results in another round of review, spacing, page number changes, table of content updates, chart and graph modifications; the list goes on and on.
"We had a hard time dealing with formatting issues for our report. It took soo long! That's time I should have spent on other areas, but instead, we have to figure out how to correct formatting issues in the PDF...If we wanted to have a 3rd party compile the report, it cost more than $30,000."
One review, two review, three review, more.
The highly manual nature of the organization's ACFR preparation meant that the report had to be constantly reviewed and validated. Updating a balance or text didn't just mean modifying a cell in most cases; it could mean updating several cells, charts, graphs, and the MD&A to assure that all the data was correct and flowed the way it should. Then, checking over the formatting again, how did the change affect margins, page numbers, images, etc. The worst part - the lingering doubt that accompanies the process, "what if I missed something?".
"A main problem right now for the whole country, not only for school districts or state and local government, is a shortage of staff. It’s harder to maintain staff, and one of my solutions is to use a lot of automation. That way, we can reduce a lot of unnecessary work, and we don’t have to rely on so many staff."
After reviewing several competitive solutions, including Gravity, CaseWare, and OneStream, as well as some offerings from smaller companies, CPS opted for Workiva's Wdesk and Wdata platforms. Wdesk serves as the organization's report writer, while Wdata is the database on the back-end driving automation. When asked what tilted the scales in Workiva's favor, Dongmei advised:
"While some of the other solutions could accommodate our requirements for automating content and linkages. Workiva can also provide a very nice presentation, which is critical for us."
The benefits didn't stop there. Dongmei continued to discuss the advantages of automation, fiscal and time savings, and improved collaboration with the Auditor.
"I just need to set up one master worksheet and all the information flows to all the different worksheets; it’s done, it’s like a miracle happened. We saved soo much time and headaches."
"We don’t see a lot of errors now. Before, we would have errors because of technical issues. If we change something in one place, it's not automatically reflected in other areas; those types of errors happened all the time. This year because we are using this wonderful automation tool, we didn’t have this problem at all. It was a high-quality report. We were so happy about it".
Fiscal and Time Savings
"This software really saved us a lot of cost on the reporting piece, $30,000 at least...For a lot of other solutions, any time we need to change anything, we need to contact the vendor for support, and it becomes very costly."
"We saved at least 500 hours; that’s minimum... I remember in 2020, I needed to work on the report to meet the timeline for the board meeting. I worked 30 hours straight to get the report done."
"Communicating with the auditor was very easy. We could send them a single package with all of the supporting documentation. We didn’t need to send excel documents back and forth…the Auditor was really happy with the solution as well."
It's not the first time that Chicago Public Schools has attempted to implement a solution to automate its ACFR. An attempt was made in 2015, and the project never really got off the ground. The team at CPS credits the consultants and best practices of F.H. Black & Company Incorporated for the success of the implementation.
"I have been involved with this kind of software implementation system upgrade for many many years...When I started to go through the procurement process, I could never imagine it would have gone so smoothly, with this level of success."
In conversation, Dongmei's Auditor discussed another client who works with Workiva but had self-implemented. While Workiva was working for them, they were still working out the kinks and did not implement as many efficiencies as Chicago Public Schools had with FHB.
"I feel like I am the lucky one. Thanks to F.H. Black, we did not have any issues, we met all our deadlines, and we are really confident in our solution. F.H. Black has the best consultants I have seen in my whole career. Not only are they IT experts, but they know the accounting side. ..I am a CPA and also a Certified Public Financial Officer, but I think our consultant is a level above me."
"This project was really successful, but it's way bigger than that. If we failed, if we couldn't meet our deadline, or there were issues, or the auditor complained, I don't know how I could convince senior management to make other improvements that our team, that the whole organization needs. This project proved that we could successfully implement technology, and it's just the beginning. Now we have the confidence to work with F.H. Black to improve the whole finance department."