Why focusing on simple can lead to catastrophe
- Jamie Black
- Best Practices
- minute(s)For finance and budget professionals, optimizing how we complete our work can save time, mitigate the risk of error and make processes easier to delegate & manage. When improving a process requires new software tools, we recognize a common bias towards "simple" tools. It often begins with our client making a comment like: My existing solution is highly manual, time intensive, and has a high risk of error but it is easy/simple/straightforward. This new solution will likely save time and reduce the risk of error, but it seems too complicated. Initially, this may seem like a wise approach and an easy assessment. However, addressing it fully requires foundational concepts to be thoroughly flushed out. For example, what precisely do you mean when you say simple, easy, and complicated? An illustrative example Let's imagine we want to mount a new 60" TV on the living room wall. Let's also assume that we are not home renovation or carpentry experts. We arrange the supplied equipment from the mounting kit we bought on the table and review the instructions. Scenario 1: We have a very limited toolbox to use in the task. We have a hammer, some screwdrivers, and a tape measure. Scenario 2: We decide to invest in more tools. We get a laser level, a stud finder, cordless drill, drill & screwdriver bits, and screw anchors, as well as the hammer, screwdrivers, and tape measure we already had. Scenario 1 seems simpler. There are only three tools, and you already own them. They are basic tools you often use for minor tasks around the house so no learning is necessary. Scenario 2 is more complicated. It requires you to have: the additional tools, charged batteries for the laser level and drill (if not charged, we need to wait for them to charge), some understanding of home construction: Inside the walls are studs that are typically spaced every 16" and that, if you screw into them, they support mounting much heavier objects. If you do not mount it into a stud, you will also need to know that you need to use screw anchors, but even then, it may not hold the TV. Also, inside the walls are electrical wires and pipes that you must avoid. knowledge of how to use the laser level, stud finder and screw anchors. A more careful review reveals that you need to understand home construction in both scenarios. But if all you have is the simple tool kit, you might (unless you supplemented these tools with an expert's knowledge and experience) overlook the required home construction knowledge. In other words, the simple scenario is simplistic and omits some crucial considerations that may lead to long-term rework. In the mounting TV scenario, rework means: buying a new TV when the mount rips out of the wall and crashes to the floor, repairing drywall and repainting, repairing the floor where the falling TV damaged it. If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have the time to do it over? John Wooden Thus Scenario 2, while more complex and more expensive (in tools and time to learn them), dramatically increases the probability of properly meeting the goal both in the short and long term. In other words, these additional tools allows the non-expert home renovator to achieve results that a master might be able to achieve with the limited tools of Scenario 1. Clients often question the value of the greater expense of Scenario 2. Depending on the precise tools we are considering, once the investment in tools and the knowledge to use them has been made, you will likely use them on other projects (hanging pictures, mirrors etc.). Scenario 1 means these other projects are at equal risk of disaster as when we hung the TV. Our recommended approach: Considering the above, having this simple vs. complex conversation with clients, we suggest and assist with the following steps: Determine the necessary tools and knowledge to properly solve a particular problem. Assess current tools & knowledge to determine the investment necessary to achieve a solution you will be happy with both today and in the future. Consider the preferences & aptitude of the team that will complete the project. Some folks like learning new tools and see it as an opportunity to continue developing their skills. Others see "being forced" to learn new tools and approaches as an absolute negative. Evaluate the Return on Investment of various options, with specific consideration to long term re-use of the tools and knowledge in other areas. We also explicitly highlight the often-hidden future cost of the simplistic versus the upfront cost of the sophisticated. Ensure expectations are accurate about the path they choose. Some closing thoughts: We recommend avoiding unnecessary complexity. For example, in our scenario above, consulting an engineer, electrician & plumber, or welding a metal rack that bolts to the floor and ceiling would increase the cost for minimal benefit. The art is in differentiating between necessary and unnecessary. Simple is a magic term for sales & marketing departments. It is often used to accelerate and increase sales. If you were selling TV mounts, you might be tempted to minimize the "tools required" section of your manual so you do not scare away some potential customers. After all, when that TV falls on the customer's floor, you are not doing the repairs.
When does focusing on simple software solutions result in catastrophe? When simple becomes the objective. Instead, finance and budget professionals should focus on what they want to achieve while avoiding unnecessary complexity. Learn how to evaluate what is and is not necessary for real success.READ MORE
Marion County Clerk
- Rachel Raymond
- Success Stories
- minute(s)Marion County Clerk prepares 3 Budget Books of more than 1,000 pages in only 8 hours, start to finish. Project: Budget Book Automation Organization: Marion County Clerk Solutions: Caseware Working Papers + custom scripting Budget Book: 2022-23 Adopted Line-Item Budget 2022/23 - 2026/27 Adopted CIP With a small team of just five people and a billion-dollar budget, Marion County has always understood the necessity of technology to allow its team to do more with less and do it quickly. Having worked first with GovMax, and then switching to Tyler Munis for budget creation, the group decided that Munis budget book automation capabilities were insufficient. To extend Munis abilities such that the output would meet the needs of the County Commissioner, $150,000 worth of customization was estimated. Unprepared to pay the initial and any ongoing costs for subsequent updates/changes, the team started looking for alternative options. The whole package The team was introduced to Caseware and F.H. Black & Company Incorporated (FHB). Out-of-the-box, the Caseware solution had a lot of what the county was looking for, and they soon learned that public sector experts at FHB would fill the gaps making the perfect solution for the organization. We interviewed Audrey Fowler, Budget Director at Marion County, to learn more about the project. Why not just use spreadsheets? To this day, we still regularly speak with finance and budget departments that prepare their financial reports using some combination of spreadsheets, word processors, and publishing tools. Having made it our mission to replace these disjointed solutions with purpose-built database-driven ones, we are always curious why organizations choose to use spreadsheets. So, when we asked Audrey why she chose not to use spreadsheets, we knew she was a kindred spirit, and her fear was real. It's a fear that our team of Principal Consultants know all too well and have experienced firsthand during their time in public sector finance and budget departments, the fear that one or more of the thousands of points of entry is incorrect. That errors have propagated throughout the reports and that they missed it. ”I would never dream of publishing a book from an excel file, not at 700 pages” Audrey Fowler, Budget Director at Marion County Clerk Automation by necessity Obtaining buy-in, allocating budget, and setting aside time for an IT project in public sector finance and budget departments is always challenging. And even when all of these things are in place, IT projects often fail, resulting in wasted time and money; more importantly, it drains enthusiasm for change. With the difficulty and risk involved, it's no wonder many organizations are hesitant to take on the challenge despite the rewards of a successful project. When we asked Audrey about the county's decision-making process, it was immediately apparent that the budget team was very motivated and that this project was a means to an end. "I don’t have 40 hours to spend in a week on putting the book together... I have to spend the money on the automation, the technology to get things done. Otherwise, I can’t get my job done." Getting exactly what you want Being no stranger to IT projects and having versed herself in what solutions were available and suitable, Audrey knew what she wanted. She also knew that to meet her needs precisely, she needed an implementation specialist to guarantee a successful and optimal implementation. Audrey wanted a two-step process for preparing a visually appealing and accurate book: Import Data, Click 3 buttons to generate the books. By implementing the FHB method complemented by custom scripting, Marion County got exactly what it wanted and needed. "The implementation was fantastic, very responsive... I was a little skeptical at first, but they [FHB] made a believer out of me, and it worked!” What does preparing your budget books look like today? "All three books are fully scripted... it's an 8-hour workday, start to finish"
Some guidance and custom scripting is all it took to enable the dedicated team at Marion County Clerk to prepare 3 Budget Books of more than 1,000 pages in only 8 hours, start to finish.READ MORE
Essential considerations when employing Balance Sheet Account ...
- Ed McCaulley
- minute(s)Given the nature of the public sector industry, with its vast constituent base, any process and control failures can become highly visible, highly contentious, and highly damaging to an organization’s reputation. Yet, with budget constraints and the hiring challenges from the “Great Resignation”, how are we to keep our organizations’ safe and out from under this magnifying glass? The challenges are significant and demand rational approaches as well as application of one of the oldest — yet most effective — accounting control processes: balance sheet account reconciliations. Reconciliations have long been an important control for ensuring the accuracy of financial statements. Validating balances in general ledger accounts through the reconciliation process provides management with assurances that controls are in place and are working effectively. Performing accurate and timely reconciliations receives considerable attention under various government regulations focused upon public sector reporting. For example, in the United States, the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) Circular No. A-123 (A-123), the Federal Managers’ Financial Integrity Act (FMFIA), and the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government (known as the “Green Book”) have been at the center of Federal requirements to improve accountability in Federal programs and operations. Within the Green Book, “reconciliations” are specifically called out both as “transaction control activities” and “ongoing monitoring”. Yet even without the regulatory emphasis, it is because of their summary and comprehensive nature that reconciliations often become key, rather than secondary, controls. As accountants and auditors, we should understand best practices related to account reconciliations and have a clear plan for reviewing reconciliations. RECONCILIATION TYPES There are various types of reconciliation, and each has nuances that will indicate the nature, timing, and extent of audit tests. Some of the more common types include: Basic account reconciliations. Often far from basic or simple, these account reconciliations may be reconciled to an accounts receivable aging schedule, fixed asset ledger report, or an accounts payable report. There should be account reconciliations for all asset, liability, and equity accounts. Bank account reconciliations. This type of reconciliation is between a bank statement and a general ledger account. Zero balance accounts (ZBAs) add a twist to the generic bank account reconciliation, because the bank account is swept or funded daily, leaving the end-of-day balance at zero. Suspense account reconciliations. Suspense accounts are used as a “holding” account until the appropriate disposition or classification of the transaction can be made (e.g., a lockbox used for all deposits). Once the cash deposit is recorded on the organization’s books, the organization will then determine why it was received and book the corresponding entry to clear suspense (e.g., to post it against a notes receivable or to book revenue). Thus, testing procedures should be added or modified to address the specific nature or characteristics of the account being reconciled. BENEFITS There are many benefits that come from performing high-quality account reconciliations, but here are the key benefits: Identify necessary adjusting entries before financial or other regulatory reports are issued, thus reducing restatement risk Identify operational issues earlier, when the problem is smaller, resolution is more manageable, and before the “fog of time” starts to obscure events Improved confidence in the financial statements from investors, managers, constituents, and external auditors Emphasizes to all employees the need for accuracy in transaction processing when the feedback is closer to the error BEST PRACTICES Both accountants and auditors should understand the best practices being utilized around account reconciliations. The following are practical ideas for improving the effectiveness of an organization’s account reconciliation efforts: Formalize a policy for reconciling and reviewing all balance sheet accounts. Complete a risk assessment of all balance sheet and off-balance sheet accounts and determine their risk level. Designate a regular cycle for the process (e.g., monthly reconciliations for high- and medium-based risks and quarterly for low-based risks). Complete account reconciliations by a specific calendar day of the subsequent month. Use a standard format for preparing reconciliations across the organization, and ensure each reconciliation contains standard information. Assign different individuals to both preparer and reviewer roles for each reconciliation to be performed. Confirm that the preparer and the reviewer possess the adequate skill sets to perform their functions, understand the nature of the account being reconciled, and understand the documentation and analysis required to support and substantiate the account balance. Consider automating the reconciliation process. There are various tools available to help with reconciliations. For example, many tools will automatically match up transactions from the G/L to the bank records, which frees reconcilers to focus on the more value-added task of researching unmatched records. Other tools help track the status of all reconciliations. Consider use of continuous monitoring tools and testing to immediately alert staff to potential issues (e.g., search for duplicate payments based upon payee, amount, and payment date) when they can take preventative action, instead of waiting to detect the issue when the reconciliation is performed. There are no guarantees but employing these practices can help reduce the risks… of fraud, financial loss, or misstatements, while identifying operational issues early before they become too large. INTERNAL AUDIT’S ROLE Internal audit should be responsible for independently assessing compliance with stated procedures. When performing audits of reconciliations, it is essential that auditors consider various attributes. Including the following testing procedures can help auditors perform a complete and adequate review. Does the “balance per the general ledger” on the reconciliation agree to the amount reported on the general ledger? One common problem is not reconciling to the full general ledger balance (e.g., to a subaccount, to only the cash or accrual or tax subledgers, or to only a subsidiary account). Does the “balance per bank” or “balance per system” agree with the bank or system report? A recurring issue is reconciling the general ledger activity to the general ledger balance rather than to an outside, confirming source. Reconciling one general ledger source to another, such as a trial balance to an online balance report, will accomplish nothing — unless the intent is to test the general ledger system’s reports. Are there any unreconciled differences? Unreconciled or unknown differences should set off alarm bells. These differences mean the reconciliation work has not successfully identified all reconciling items. This typically indicates that the individual preparing the reconciliation does not have the appropriate skills, did not devote the time necessary to complete the reconciliation, or simply does not have access to all the appropriate data required. Be careful about de minimis limits that some groups have established. The theory behind a de minimis limit is that the difference is too small to warrant the time and effort to track down the difference and that it is more efficient to simply write off the unreconciled amount. However, the use of de minimis limits have dropped out of favor because the unreconciled balance may be hiding more than one error if the transaction amounts offset each other. In other words, a $10 unreconciled balance might be two or more transactions… a million-dollar credit, largely offset by a $999,990 debit. Are reconciling items being cleared timely? Unless the reconciling items identified are purely timing issues, they should result in some action (e.g., a journal entry or an entry to correct a subledger). These actions should clear the item before the next reconciliation is performed. If they are not cleared, it is an indication that the work is not being performed. As many organizations are operating with lean accounting departments, completing account reconciliations both correctly and timely can be a difficult task. However, staff shortages do not justify rolling reconciling items forward from period to period. Although this approach is quicker and may seem to be an acceptable solution to the overworked individual performing the reconciliation, it is often the cause of a restatement. Was the reconciliation signed by the preparer and reviewer, and are the preparer and reviewer different individuals? Having both roles is important for three reasons. First of all, it introduces a measure of segregation of duties, especially useful in smaller organizations where everyone wears multiple (and sometimes incompatible) hats. Secondly, the reviewer may offer a broader understanding of the transactions flowing through the account. Finally, the reviewer also should help ensure that reconciliations are being performed with consistent diligence between accounts. Was the reconciliation completed on time? Reconciliations should be completed before the data or report for the next reconciliation becomes available. Thus, a bank account reconciliation would be considered late if it was not completed before the next month’s bank statement was received. Has the organization established a monitoring control over reconciliations? Reconciliations are such an important control that many organizations have implemented an organization-wide policy or centralized monitoring to ensure their timely completion. All balance sheet accounts should be reconciled. SUMMARY Performing appropriate and timely reconciliations is a critical control function that should be in place in all organizations. Although account reconciliations may seem mundane and repetitive, a strong account reconciliation process is an important component of a solid system of internal controls. Implementing account reconciliation best practices — such as accountability, risk-based prioritization, and reconciliation automation — provides management with insight into the substance of transactions and account balance content. A robust reconciliation process can identify necessary adjusting entries before financial or other regulatory reports are issued, while also reducing restatement risk, improving investor confidence, and eliminating write-offs.
Accurate and timely reconciliations are a critical control function that should be in place in all organizations. Understand best practices related to account reconciliations and develop a clear plan for reviewing reconciliations.READ MORE
- Rachel Raymond
- Success Stories
- minute(s)Deschutes County Made Massive Efficiency Gains in Minimal Time with Only Moderate Guidance Project: Budget Automation Organization: Deschutes County Population: 204,801 (2021) Solutions: Workiva Wdesk & Wdata Budget Book: 2022 Adopted Budget Book With a single automation project, the Deschutes County Finance and Budget Department team reduced their budget book preparation time by 60-65% in year one and anticipate greater efficiency gains in the coming years. Like many public sector organizations, the County's finance department was plagued by inefficient business processes and inadequate tools, tempering their ability to commit sufficient time to higher-value tasks like long-term forecasting. The Search Deschutes County enlisted the help of the experts at F.H. Black and Company Incorporated. Working together, they reviewed the county's existing processes, identified areas for improvements, generated a list of requirements, and assessed the qualifying solutions. "We looked at quite a few solutions, probably 8 or 9 different platforms over 6 to 7 months... FHB answered all our questions and steered us in the right direction." Daniel Emerson, Budget Manager at Deschutes County The Right Solution - Workiva After carefully assessing their requirements and stringently reviewing industry-leading solutions for the best fit, the county opted for Workiva. A combination of Wdesk and Wdata gave the county a robust cloud-based automation solution that enabled seamless collaboration with all contributors to the book. The intuitive and familiar interface of Wdesk enables the team to instantly generate automated reports and create custom data sets and calculations in seconds. "We absolutely love Workiva! Right now, there’s an over 50% probability that at some point in the next year, we will reach out and talk about an ACFR implementation. We'll recommend F.H. Black for that as well.” FHB's Guided-Self Implementation Having selected Workiva as their reporting automation solution, it was time for the county to implement, configure and optimize the solution for their environment. Workiva's seemingly limitless potential and plethora of features meant that if the county wanted to optimally implement the solution to maximize automation and collaboration, they would benefit from expert help. The question was, how much help? As no two organizations, finance departments, or implementations are the same, FHB offers its clients many options. Implementations are scoped, packaged, and priced based on the client's requirements, budget, and availability to contribute to the project. The county was offered a sliding scale of services: On one side, you have a Delegated implementation. This option would see the county delegate the implementation to the CPAs at FHB. They would have to provide a little information, but almost all of the work would be completed by the team at FHB. This is the most expensive option; it requires very little input from the county and is fast. On the other side of the scale, there is the Guided-Self implementation. This is the least expensive option and designates most of the work to the team at the County. FHB provides initial infrastructure setup, training, guidance, and any additional custom development work requested. Confident in their ability and availability to self-implement the solution with guidance from FHB, the county opted for a Guided-Self Implementation. Besides the cost, this option has the added benefit of including the county's team in just about every step of the implementation process, resulting in the team having familiarity and knowledge of the solution that they otherwise would not. The county also knew that they could always approach FHB for additional services if they ran into a problem. “I think that this project by the end of July would have already paid for itself”. Next year and beyond No matter how you measure it, the county's budget automation project was a massive success. As a result, the county can declare in no uncertain terms that it has massively improved the efficiency, reliability, repeatability, and accuracy of its budget preparation process, with far-reaching implications for the budget team, the department, the organization, and the community.
Deschutes County reduced its budget book preparation time by 60-65% in year one and anticipate greater efficiency gains in the coming years. Learn how they made massive efficiency gains with only moderate guidance.READ MORE
Strategies for getting Council to understand and support your budget
- Joy Richardson
- Budget Book
- minute(s)It's budget time, and you're ready! Painstaking detail and effort have gone into making sure that all 300+ pages of the budget book have been checked and rechecked. While this may feel like a job well done, the hard part (communicating) is just beginning. The reality is that a budget without context is just as ineffective as a map without a legend. The presentation of the budget's information is your chance to help Council, the Board, or any other stakeholders map out where your organization is today and its future direction (remember the map)! With lots of information to share in a limited time, effective communication is essential. Therefore, when developing your strategy, you should consider the objectives of: Informing, and Engaging. Informing is the starting point for communication and is based on the following: Information flow is in one direction Reading a budget book is an example of the one-way flow of information. The reader receives the information. However, without any accompanying conversation, they do not have the opportunity to ask questions or give feedback. Further, just providing the information is not enough. Communicating with the goal to enable understanding helps Council focus on and interpret the data so that the intended messages are received. Simple strategies for improving comprehension include using: Progressive disclosure to keep things focused Progressive disclosure keeps information at the summary level until the reader asks for or needs more detail. Providing too much information at once is overwhelming, causing that glazed-over-eyes phenomenon we have all seen! Learning efficiency benefits greatly from the use of progressive disclosure. Information presented to a person who is not interested or ready to process it is effectively noise. Information that is gradually or progressively disclosed to a learner as they need or request it is better processed and perceived as more relevant. Universal Principles of Design, Lidwell, Holden, Butler Using a drill-down approach provides additional information as necessary when the readers are ready to make sense of it. Style for understanding When it comes to style, remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Thus, the focus should not be on what looks pretty but on understandability. To convey the message, consideration should be given to using the right combination of text, tables, and graphs. Find more information on this topic in our 3 questions to answer before report design blog. Engaging provides Council with the opportunity to receive information as well as respond with questions. The benefits of this multi-directional approach become apparent as heads begin nodding with understanding instead of the usual nodding off. While the Council presentation and budget deliberations themselves are forms of engagement, tools such as real time-modeling can make things even more dynamic. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a simulation is worth at least a million. Simulations can help demonstrate individual budget components, their relationship with other areas, and the impacts of making changes that are often hard to articulate. Specifically, a simulation can: Demonstrate the inherent trade-offs that come with competing resources and desires Highlight the differences between discretionary and non-discretionary items and how they impact the budget Show both the short- and long-term impacts of budgetary changes Shifting your Role: It is no secret that finance and budget departments' resources are limited, and much of those resources are already allocated to just preparing the budget. This begs the question of how to implement these strategies? If you are familiar with our work, you may have already guessed the answer: Best Practices paired with the appropriate Technologies. There are various software solutions that can free up staff resources by: Soliciting community engagement and integrating it into the budget Automating the preparation of the budget publication Assisting with a real-time, interactive presentation Budget simulators are one such tool you can consider. Read more on their utilization for engaging stakeholders. Using technology to reduce the more manual and mechanical processes, you can shift staff resources to focus on better communication and engagement. This allows finance departments to add value as not just number crunchers but as trusted advisors.
Go beyond just submitting and presenting your budget book to Council. Use these strategies for stakeholder buy-in and informed feedback.READ MORE
Chicago Public Schools
- Rachel Raymond
- Success Stories
- minute(s)Chicago Public Schools saved hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars in ACFR preparation costs The Challenge Project: ACFR Automation 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 Manual Overload 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?". Staff shortages "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." The Solution 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. Automation "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." The Audit "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." The Implementation 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." The Result "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."
Chicago Public Schools saved hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars in their Annual Comprehensive Financial Report preparation costs. We interviewed them to learn more.READ MORE
What a difference a year made for the City of Fort Wayne
- Rachel Raymond
- Success Stories
- minute(s)The City of Fort Wayne cuts budget book preparation time by 75%. That's 300 hours! Project: Budget Book Automation Project Scope: Automate balances and narrative GFOA Budget Book Award compliance Replicate appearance of existing book Organization: City of Fort Wayne, IN Population: 265,752 (2019) Solutions: Workiva Wdesk & Wdata Budget Book: Operating Budget Book The Challenge The City of Fort Wayne was using multiple disjointed systems to prepare the budget book. The budget department would bring balances from Excel into Munis, their ERP system. Any required changes would be manually keyed into the ERP system. The team would then run "really clunky" Crystal Reports and open them in Excel. They then pivoted the data by inputting appropriate parameters by fund and department. If a department like Police, had sub-departments (police admin, radio shop, and records) any changes to a sub-department would require a report to be run at the sub-department level before being rolled up for a department level report. They then needed to review for accuracy before going back to Excel for any updates. "Every time we made one little number change, it caused at least another 30-45 minutes worth of work" Kathleen Smith Finance Manager at the City of Fort Wayne The Solution Having had great success with the reporting automation solution used to prepare the city's ACFR, the team opted for more of the same: Workiva's Wdata & Wdesk, customized and implemented with F.H. Black & Company Incorporated. What does the process look like now? Data is pulled from the City's ERP system and imported into Workiva. The budget book is then automatically populated with balances. All participants have the ability to access the system and provide their contributions. Any required changes are updated in a single location in Workiva, and the book and all other applicable materials are automatically updated. Reports that would have taken hours to prepare before now take moments, and data can be pivoted in an instant. "I just can't say enough about how much efficiency and accuracy improved" The Implementation After carefully considering the implementation service levels offered, the city contracted FHB to automate the budget book on a "guided-self" basis with onboarding support. This meant that while costs were kept low, Kathleen and her team would do the majority of the work under the guidance of FHB's experts once they had completed the initial setup and customization. FHB assigned a team to work on the city's project and the work began. As with all FHB led implementations, the initial kick-off meeting defined scope, assigned tasks/deadlines, and trained the city's team on using their project management tool. Next, FHB implemented a pre-built data model designed for public sector organizations, and built a connection from the city's ERP system, Munis. FHB recreated the prior year budget book template in Workiva, set up basic sections and ten pages of linking to train the city's team. We then assisted the city with the tasks assigned to their team, which included loading, tagging, and grouping imported data by object and function, building and linking schedules, notes, and statements, before reconciling, reviewing, and testing. "We had the budget book done probably a week earlier than we normally do and that was while learning and implementing a whole new system" The Result The city achieved a 75% time savings while improving its budget book preparation process. Kathleen and her team now have robust, documented, and repeatable processes making onboarding new team members a breeze. Having automated the ACFR and the expenditure budgets, the city is planning another project to automate the revenue side. "I was here a lot of evenings making sure everything looked right and tied together correctly. We didn't have that this year, I didn't find myself working any evenings or weekends."
The city of Fort Wayne reduced their budget book preparation time by 300 hours, that's 75%! This is how they did it.READ MORE
Frederick County, MD Unifies and Automates the Budget Book
- Rachel Raymond
- Success Stories
- minute(s)Frederick County Unifies All The Pieces Of The Budget Book Under A Comprehensive Solution Project: Budget Book Automation Organization: Frederick County, MD Population: 271,717 (2020 Census) Total Budgeted Revenues: $905 million Solution: Questica Budget Book powered by CaseWare Budget Book: Adopted Operating & Capital Budgets Success Story: Frederick County The Challenge Frederick County's, Budget Department faced a challenge common to Public Sector organizations when preparing the Budget Book. They spent countless hours gathering and reconciling pieces of their Budget Book across multiple applications. They had pieces in Questica Budget, pieces in Excel, pieces in Word, and they presented it in Adobe. To ensure confidence in the data, every change or update would require a time-consuming review. "Budget Book pieces were coming from every direction, that's what we had to solve" Tanya Kauffman, Budget Analyst III at Frederick County Government The Solution Replace Microsoft & Adobe with CaseWare and integrate it with Questica Budget. CaseWare hosts the Budget Book template and pulls balances and narratives directly from Questica. Any changes applied to the budget are made in Questica and flow straight through to all applicable locations in the book, facilitating greater confidence in the data and reducing the requirement for constant review and reconciliation. In addition, CaseWare's document management functionality allowed contributions from all parties to be stored and managed in a single location. The Project F.H. Black & Company Inc. assisted the team at Frederick County to implement the solution with the FHB method. Discovery - What are the County's wants and needs. Scope - Defining the parameters of the project. Planning - Working backward from the project goal to define a timeline and assign tasks. Configuration - Configure the selected solution to meet the County's needs. Training - Provide training to the County's budget team in the use of their new tools. Management - Weekly meetings and communication to ensure the project stays on track. Completion - Mutual agreement that the scope of the project has been completed. Ongoing Support - FHB continues to support and work with the County to improve and refine their processes. The Result The County has unified its piecemeal budget book under a single comprehensive solution resulting in increased confidence in the data and an estimated 25% reduction in the time it takes to complete budget book preparation processes. We asked Tanya if she has anything to add about the project. Here's what she had to say... For more on this project, read the full story.
Frederick County unifies and automates the budget book with a comprehensive solution for outstanding results.READ MORE
City of Garland Modernizes its Budget Processes
- Rachel Raymond
- Success Stories
- minute(s)The Forward-Thinking City of Garland Overcomes 3 Budget Challenges With 1 Project Project: Budget & Budget Book Preparation Organization: City of Garland, Texas Population: 239,928 (2019 Census) Annual Budget: $1.1 billion (Operating + CIP) Solution: Caseware & Questica Budget Book: Annual Operating Budget CIP: Capital Improvement Program Success Story: City of Garland The Challenge The city of Garland's Budget Department faced a trio of challenges that shared the same root cause: antiquated software solutions, and the business processes required to make them work. The city relied on legacy budget software to prepare the budget and a combination of Word, Excel, and Adobe to prepare the Capital & Operating Budget Books. The processes were slow, disjointed, and error-prone. The Solution After extensive research, the city's Budget Director, Allyson Bell Steadman decided on Questica Budget to prepare the budget, CaseWare to prepare the budget book, and F.H. Black & Company Inc. to integrate the two and ensure the budget book solution was optimally implemented to maximize their benefits and guarantee project success. The Project The implementation process was managed and guided by consultants from FHB. It started with a planning meeting, introduction to FHB's online project management tool, allocation of deliverables, and scheduling of software training. Once trained in the use of their new tools, the FHB team built the Capital Improvement Program budget book template based on the City's specifications. Once complete, a similar process was carried out for the Operating Budget Book. The Result By the end of the sixteen week implementation, the City was able to produce and publish both the proposed and adopted 2020-21 CIP & Operating Budget Books. The City now has a robust, documented, repeatable, and largely automated process for preparing their budget book. "The Budget & Research Department is in a much better position to produce and distribute budget documents. Our most recent success was having our 2021 Adopted CIP document finalized for publication on the City’s website and distribution to City Council two weeks after adoption". For more on this project, read the full success story here.
The City of Garland modernizes its Budget, Capital Improvement Program, and Annual Operating Budget Book preparation processes with a single project.READ MORE
City of Greensboro Budget Book Automation Project
- Jamie Black
- Success Stories
- minute(s)With a population of nearly 300,000 and growing, the City of Greensboro is the third-most populous in North Carolina. The City's 2020-21 adopted budget of $602 million spans 169 pages and was awarded the GFOA Distinguished Budget Presentation Award. Long-time Questica Budget users, the City is extremely happy with their processes for preparing the budget. The Budget Book however was another story. Like many finance departments, the City used Microsoft Excel, Word, and Publisher to prepare the book. The process was time-consuming, repetitive, resource-heavy, and disjointed; it was time to make a change. The team at Greensboro had heard about F.H. Black & Company Incorporated at a Questica conference and reached out for help to improve their budget book. Once the project was complete, we gave the City a little time to bask in their achievement before interviewing them about their journey. Here are the highlights of that interview with the City's Budget Database Specialist, Leah Price. The Old Way "We used a combination of Microsoft Excel, Word, and Publisher, and it was very time consuming for all staff members. The Budget Analysts had to manually enter all of their departments’ numbers line by line twice: once for the Manager Recommended version and again for the Final Adopted version. The Budget Database Specialist also had to make sure all of the formatting was correct in Publisher, and finally work with our internal print shop to make sure every page had the perfect amount of space between the text and the hole punches. When we heard there was a software that we could use to import the numbers from Questica directly into the budget document, we jumped on it." The Project "We sent our FHB consultants a copy of our former budget document and a copy of our budget data from Questica. The consultants built a template for us that was similar to the old format, and then worked closely with our staff to make sure that the budget data was going to the right places in the document. We have over 25 operating funds and many tricky aspects to our budget rules overall, so assigning the budget numbers and FTEs where they needed to go was the biggest struggle. However, it all came together in the end." The Benefits "The process is more streamlined and controlled. It probably saves the analysts a couple of weeks’ worth of time because they no longer have to do any manual data entry." "The budget analysts are an important resource to our departments, and their new found availability during the budget development process allows them to help out more with current year concerns." The Relationship "Our (FHB) consultants have always helped us meet our deadlines and make sure to work us into their schedule if we have last minute issues." "I have mainly worked with Joy, and I am so grateful to her for all of her help and expertise! I really appreciated that she wanted to make sure that I was learning how to do (almost) everything we needed her help with. It was my first year being responsible for the budget book and I had very little knowledge of CaseWare. I truly could not have done it without her." Considering a reporting automation project? Schedule a meeting with one of our experts to explore your options.
The City of Greensboro implemented an automated budget book solution that pulled data directly from their Questica Budget software resulting in a better book in less time.READ MORE