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Chicago Public Schools

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.
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Comprehensive Annual Financial Report Automation Success - State of ...

Comprehensive Annual Financial Report Automation Success - State of ...

  • Jamie Black
  • Success Stories
  • minute(s)The State of Maine is thrilled with its new automated approach to preparing the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (see the resulting document here). We interviewed them to learn more, and share their insights with others considering a Comprehensive Annual Financial Report automation project.   Read the full interview: The Interview 1 What was your business process to tackle the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report previously and how much time did it take? We import a trial balance from our accounting system that is formatted for use by our reporting application using Excel.  We request information from numerous state agencies and other sources for the purpose of posting adjustments (over 300 manually entered adjustments and over 100 "auto-reversals") to account balances and compile other information for note disclosures, required supplementary information and statistical information. Our previous Comprehensive Annual Financial Report reporting software generated only numerical financial statements in Excel format.  Narrative information was generated with Word.  Desktop publishing was a completely manual process that involved converting multiple documents into PDF format and compiling numerous PDF documents into one published document.  The entire process began with some "prep" work in August, with the full commitment of all five members of the financial reporting team beginning in September.  Draft financial statements typically were issued by approximately the second week in December and often the Auditor's Opinion letter would not be received until the last week of December, with the deadline to qualify for a Government Finance Officers Association Certificate of Excellence being December 31.  A significant amount of time involved in generating the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report requires the compilation of information, making calculations, documenting, reviewing and filing workpapers for review by our Auditors.  Additionally, we are the reporting entity for several component units, who must complete their financial statements before we can include their information in our statements.  Thus, it would be difficult to push the timeline back further than approximately December 1st. 2What product were you using before and why did you want to switch? We used "CAFR Unlimited."  The product was a Microsoft Access based application that was originally developed by a lone developer and sold to a software development company.  The company discontinued support for the original application and planned to convert the application to a networked, SQL server platform, but discontinued support for that product as well.  The product was simple to use and worked well for us.  But, it had no desktop publishing capabilities.  The reports that CAFR Unlimited produced were all Excel based reports.  Thus, we switched, number one, for the lack of product support; and two, we wanted a more robust product that provided publishing and workflow capabilities. 3Did you look at other solutions and if so, what was the key factor(s) in choosing our solution? We were provided with demonstrations of other products, but none of them had all the capabilities that CaseWare offered.  We also liked the staff at FHB and felt comfortable that they would provide excellent customer service.  After a demonstration of CaseWare, we were instantly intrigued by the product.  When we asked the presenter "will CaseWare do this?", the answer was in most cases "Yes, this is how that is done."  The decision to go with CaseWare was easy. 4Were you concerned about dealing with someone other than the software vendor for implementation? No, not at all.  In fact, after the implementation, we had a couple of minor "glitches" to resolve and in a least one case, F.H. Black resolved the problem quicker than CaseWare International's support staff.  So, we're very happy we have the support of FHB. 5What process did you follow to implement CaseWare?  We installed CaseWare on our computers and received four days of training from an F.H. Black consultant in two separate 2-day sessions. We provided the consultant with the prior year Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and our previous trial balance "crosswalk" or "rollup" codes. The consultant recreated the prior year's statements, notes, and various schedules based on Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) templates. Through online "Goto Meetings" we met with the consultant at least once per week to discuss questions we had and offered our comments about changes that needed to be made. During this process, the consultant maintained the "master copy" of the CaseWare Working Papers file. Once the prior financial statements had been substantially recreated, the consultant performed a "roll-forward" to create the current year (new working papers file) financial statements; and control of the master copy was handed off to us. We entered adjustments to account balances as usual during the report compilation period. During this period, we continued to make editorial improvements to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report with the help and support of FHB. The final step of publishing the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report merely involved "hitting the print" button. 6How did the implementation go? It was a lot of work and required the effort of five of our staff as well as three of F.H. Black's staff.  Considering that our Comprehensive Annual Financial Report is an extremely complex and detailed 250-page document, the process went quite well. 7From your perspective, how is the State in a better position now as compared to with your old solution? Is the process faster? Could you estimate the time savings or provide any examples? We believe we are using a much better tool than before.  We are comforted in the fact that we have support of a company with knowledge and expertise in financial reporting and supports mature industry-leading software with an international presence. It's difficult to measure "fast" in our circumstance.  CaseWare's strength is with its desktop publishing capabilities.  But, in terms our timeline, since we are a relatively large governmental entity, we post numerous adjustments (approximately 300 plus), that must be processed through our rigorous documentation and review process.  This takes a tremendous amount of time regardless of the tool(s) used. CaseWare does save us the time and tedium of having to manually enter every adjusting journal. At the end of the reporting process, we used to compile numerous Excel workbooks and Word documents, send files to a "PDF printer" and import many PDF files into the final published version.  Since individual documents came from so many different sources there was no consistency in page margins, page numbering, fonts and font sizes, etc.  CaseWare is "heads and shoulders above" our previous software in terms of the quality of the published report.  We also believe the overall integrity of the report to be much better and the risk of errors and omissions is less than before. 8What are the biggest benefits of the CaseWare tool vs. your old system? The biggest advantage is the desktop publishing and the ability to reference values between statements to ensure that all values agree.  Our prior reporting application had no desktop publishing capabilities.  The exceptional feature of CaseWare is that anyone can see a real-time view of the draft report at any time during the report compilation period.  You don't have to wait until the end of the process to view a compiled "camera ready" draft product. CaseWare provides the ability for the user to formulate unlimited diagnostics and analytics to ensure the completeness, accuracy and integrity of the final product. CaseWare allows the user to easily generate customizable reports using its "automatic document" functionality.  These reports were invaluable in establishing and verifying account rollup balances during the implementation phase and the reports were extremely useful for auditors as well during the first year of our Comprehensive Annual Financial Report reporting.  Our old system did not allow the user to save customized worksheet reports; whereas CaseWare allows users to create as many "worksheet" reports as desired and organize them anyway they want. Our prior tool allowed for the import of the trial balance only.  CaseWare allows user to import trial balances, budgets, revenue forecasts, performance measures, and even adjustment data from properly formatted Excel workbooks.  The import functionality is extremely convenient as it eliminates the time and tedium of entering data that we've already "crunched" in our complex Excel spreadsheets.  The import functionality also limits or eliminates data entry errors. 9What was your experience with FHB like?  The consultant assigned to our project has over ten years of experience, his combined background in accounting and computer programming and technical acumen makes him an invaluable resource for us and FHB. 10Did you feel like we carefully managed the project, knew and met your deadlines etc? Yes.  We were very clear in communicating our timeline to FHB.  We had established a reasonable timetable at the beginning of the implementation project.  We believe that effective planning and communications by all parties was key to the success of the project. 11What was our client service like? Did you feel like you were well taken care of and that your concerns were heard, and your questions answered etc? We believe FHB's customer service is "top notch."  The team made a concerted effort to understand our requirements and concerns.  We participated in periodic "how's everything going" meetings.  We got the sense that FHB strives for continuous improvement in servicing its clients; and is genuinely concerned about its clients' opinions and satisfaction with FHB's products and services. 12How well did we communicate? Were we clear and concise, were we readily available to discuss your concerns? Did we do a good job of setting expectations and keeping you updated each step of the way? The consultant assigned to our project was extremely knowledgeable, helpful, easy to work with, and explained every detail of the technical, "under the hood" aspects of CaseWare whenever we had specific questions about how the application works. 13Is there anything you wish you knew at the beginning of this process that you know now? Advice for others considering a similar Comprehensive Annual Financial Report automation project? We can't think of anything that we wish we knew at the beginning of the process.  However, as one would expect, the more complex the set of financial statements, the more lead time an entity should provide itself to implement CaseWare.  Our Comprehensive Annual Financial Report is 250 pages that includes introductory information, management discussion and analysis, basic financial statements, notes to the financial statements, required supplementary information, notes to the required supplementary information, combining and individual financial statements, and statistical schedules, all prescribed by GASB standards.  We started our implementation project in April of 2017 with training.  The recreation of the prior year's financial statements, to be used as a template, took place from May through August.  The generation of the current year's financial statements occurred during the usual time frame from September through December.  We completed the published report approximately two weeks ahead of the usual timeframe.  As with any project, proper planning, delegation of tasks, and adherence to deadlines is important to achieving a successful outcome. 14Would you recommend CaseWare to other state or local government finance departments and why? Absolutely...Yes.  Based on our research and experience, CaseWare appears to be the most comprehensive reporting application on the market - the one tool that "does it all."
The State of Maine automated their Comprehensive Annual Financial Report with the CaseWare solution and are thrilled with the results. We interviewed them to find out more about what they did before, the implementation process, and where they are now.
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