In Black & White

Freeing Finance & Budget Departments from Drudgery One Article at a Time

Engaging residents to address the impact of COVID-19 on the Budget

Engaging residents to address the impact of COVID-19 on the Budget

  • Jamie Black
  • Budget Book
  • minute(s)Public sector organizations across North America are facing considerable budget pressures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This may necessitate slashing funding to programs and/or increasing tax rates. That is likely to be very unpopular with your stakeholders (council, board, and/or residents). Working through these options will require careful planning, making trade-offs, and effectively communicating new realities to stakeholders to get their buy-in and earn/maintain their trust.  If you've read our Style & Substance blog articles before or attended our webinar series on best practices for communicating financial information, you know we have strong opinions on effective communication. In a time of massive budget challenges, your team's ability to communicate your message clearly and effectively is more important than ever. Over and above what we have laid out in our articles and presentations, what can your finance or budget department do to help stakeholders understand the complex issues you are facing?  Too Much or Too Little Detail Stakeholder engagement is nothing new. Publication of large budget documents, public meetings to discuss these documents, focus groups, and advisory committees have been utilized for decades to engage with residents to educate them and receive their feedback. These approaches are often challenged by the complexity of the topic and the time investment required to execute them. Who wants to read even a 200+ page budget book? If they do read it, the result may not be what you expect:   An implication for government transparency is that transparency initiatives that expect citizens to make sense of technical and abstract information, especially in large amounts, (such as the many line items and millions of dollars described in a typical public budget) probably face a much greater hurdle to increasing trust than their well-meaning originators thought. In fact, at worst, too much information could actually decrease trust. Transparency: A Means to Improving Citizen Trust in Government -  Government Finance Officers Association As an alternative, local governments can utilize surveys or online budget tools to broaden the public meeting's reach. A classic example of this approach is the "digital budget book."  These tend to be more approachable and, therefore, attractive to a typical stakeholder. This comes at the cost of the depth of detail and nuance necessary to truly educate the audience about the organization's constraints.  Further, the act of merely putting a budget book online does not tackle the underlying barrier presented by large volumes of complex technical information noted by the GFOA. What you need then is: the ability to reach as many stakeholders as possible, in a way that encourages their participation, focuses on educating them on the context, constraints, and challenges we face and solicits their feedback. Engage Stakeholders with Budget Simulations This is where simulations come in. As technology has evolved, simulations have proven themselves to be the best of both worlds: broad reach and accessibility to maximize participation combined with the right amount of detail and nuance. Participants are invited to investigate the budget initially at a highly summarized level. This has the advantage of minimizing initial complexity and enabling understanding of the budget's overall state (e.g., surplus, deficit). They can drill down into more and more detail to understand the composition of the budget. Finally and most importantly, stakeholders are asked to increase or decrease budgeted amounts by department, service area, or program based on their own priorities and preferences. You can present them with a series of options to choose between that will impact the budget. Participants attempt to craft the budget they would like to see but will regularly bump into problems. Want to triple the budget on policing? Sure! But that puts us into a major deficit. How will you fund this increase? Participants can add comments explaining their rationale. All this data is collected for the hosting finance/budget department to analyze and leverage in refining the budget. Not having learned it is not as good as having learned it; having learned it is not as good as having seen it carried out; having seen it is not as good as understanding it; understanding it is not as good as doing it. ..He who carries it out, knows it thoroughly. The Works of Hsüntze Bringing your stakeholders into the budget process with simulations will allow them to understand the challenges you are facing and provide the feedback necessary to ensure you are optimally meeting their expectations. 
COVID-19 has hit some public sector budgets hard! See why some organizations are choosing to educate and engage residents with budget simulations for stakeholder buy-in.
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The ADA & US Government: What you need to know in 6 minutes

The ADA & US Government: What you need to know in 6 minutes

  • Jamie Black
  • Financial Reporting
  • minute(s)While many have heard of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), few truly understand its importance: Why should a finance or budget professional care about it? What do the laws (there are three) specifically require? How must I comply with the laws? This article answers these questions. 1) Finance & Budget Departments Should Care Designing documents that are easily understood by your audience is challenging. When some of your audience have visual impairments, there is an additional set of considerations. There are three primary reasons you should care about this topic: As a public sector organization, you want your message available to everyone. Approximately 5.5 million people have visual impairment in North America today. This is expected to double by 2050.  To “read” your Comprehensive Annual Financial Report or Budget Book, visually impaired individuals must use assistive technology. These tools read the PDF to them electronically. Unless specifically designed for accessibility however, your PDFs will not be readable by assistive technology. Your organization is legally required to ensure all public documents are accessible (readable by assistive technology). Accessibility for your documents is legally mandated if: you work in a local government, a federal agency, or, a place of "public accommodation" (privately-owned, leased or operated facilities like hotels, restaurants, retail merchants, doctor’s offices, golf courses, private schools, daycare centers, health clubs, sports stadiums, movie theaters, and so on), and you are located in the United States, and you publish content to a publicly accessible website. Numerous lawsuits have been launched for failure to ensure accessibility both for businesses and local governments. As identified by Seyfarth Shaw LLP, these lawsuits are becoming more and more prevalent.   2) The Laws Mandate Accessibility Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require Federal agencies to make their Electronic and Information Technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. The law (29 U.S.C § 794 (d)) applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Under Section 508, agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information comparable to the access available to others. On January 18, 2017, the U.S. Access Board published a final rule updating accessibility requirements for Information and Communication Technology (ICT) covered by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Communications Act. E205.4 of this final rule stipulates the accessibility standard mandated by Section 508: Electronic content shall conform to Level A and Level AA Success Criteria and Conformance Requirements in Web Content Accessibility Guidelines ( WCAG 2.0) (incorporated by reference, see 702.10.1). Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) It was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA is one of America's most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else. The ADA has three "Titles" (think sections), and it is Title II that applies to the programs and activities of state and local government (title I is employment practices and title III covers private entities that are considered public accommodations).  While the ADA does not explicitly reference requirements for web content, the Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights division has confirmed their opinion that the ADA does in fact cover content on web sites. Unfortunately, there is no technical definition for ensuring your web content complies with the ADA. Congress sought clarification from the DOJ in 2018, but their response was noncommittal as to the standard required: Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA's general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. In late July 2019, a series of questions were again raised to the DOJ from several senators looking for clarification. In particular, the senators attempted to learn if the DOJ "consider WCAG 2.0 an acceptable compliance standard". No response from the DOJ has been received as of this writing. California Assembly Bill No. 434 This legislation states that by July 1, 2019 all web content of the state agency or entity must meet... the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, or a subsequent version, published by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium at a minimum Level AA success criteria. 3) Standards Determine Compliance Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Two of the three pieces of legislation above specifically reference Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 as the relevant standard that our documents must conform to. These guidelines were developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C),  an international community that develops open standards for the Web. WCAG 2.0 contains 12 guidelines designed to make content published on the web more accessible for those with impairment. Testable criteria are also provided to allow for the assessment of your content. Any piece of content can be assessed into one of three levels of conformance : A (lowest), AA, and AAA (highest). Note that the legislation mentioned above specify the level that your content must achieve. PDF/Universal Accessibility (PDF U/A) We mention this standard here as you may hear it and be confused by it. PDF/UA is the informal name for ISO 14289, the International Standard for accessible PDF technology. A technical specification intended for developers implementing PDF writing and processing software, PDF/UA provides definitive terms and requirements for accessibility in PDF documents and applications. PDF/UA defines the technical specifications to enable PDF documents to meet WCAG 2.0, but WCAG 2.0 has additional requirements that call for an author’s attention. For these and other additional requirements, the W3C’s technique documents (both general and PDF-specific techniques) guide authors interested in complying with WCAG 2.0. In short, if you are a state or local government in the United States and want to be confident that you comply with the various pieces of legislation, all content you publish to the web must conform to WCAG 2.0 level AA standard. Watch this space for our next article on the technical requirements of WCAG 2.0 and a methodology to employ to make your published documents fully compliant with the standards mandated by the ADA, Section 508, and California Bill 434.   
Accessibility - Why should finance & budget professionals care? What do the laws (3!) require? How can you comply? This article provides the answers.
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Budget Book VS. Financial Statements: What's Worse?

Budget Book VS. Financial Statements: What's Worse?

  • Jamie Black
  • Automating Financial Reporting
  • minute(s)Finance professionals in government and education have several daunting (frustrating, annoying, I could go on..) reporting challenges to address each year: the Annual Audited Financial Report, the Budget Book and some special purpose reports like the FIR for governments in Alberta & Ontario or the CAUBO report for universities & colleges While automating the annual financial statements is generally recognized as a major win for your finance team, perhaps an even bigger win is automating the budget book. To an outsider, this might be a surprise. Isn't going through an audit the worst thing possible? Admittedly, it's not a lot of fun and yes it is incredibly time consuming; but the budget book is worse. Here's why.. 1) Much more content  How long are your annual financial statements? For many of our clients (governments, universities & colleges, large publicly traded companies) a typical set of statements include: a cover page a table of contents 4 statements 20 - 30 notes 4 - 6 schedules All told, the report is perhaps 30 pages.  For a regional district or a local government in the USA that must prepare a Comprehensive Annual Financial Report the page count is likely to increase to 200 + pages. In any case, there is a lot of complexity to these reports. A budget book (sometimes called the "financial plan") is almost always much larger. 200 or 300 pages is actually a small budget document. For those clients that participate in the GFOA Distinguished Budget Presentation Awards program, their guidelines tend to result in very large budget books. Some even approach 1,000 pages! All of this content means more work. More tables, more text, and more numbers that must reconcile.   2) Considerable emphasis on non-financial data For the most part, financial statements are focused on financial data. There are text portions (the policies and notes), but even then they are either relatively static (e.g. your revenue recognition policy is not changing year-by-year) or primarily about details of the financial data. In contrast, it is very common for the budget book to contain hundreds of pages of narrative. Large narrative discussions of the following are required of GFOA Distinguished Budget Presentation Award Program participants in a budget book: the budget process, entity-wide long-term financial policies, organizational charts and descriptions of the organization, its community, the population and background information related to the services provided. Why does this make the process harder? More content means more page breaks, larger table of contents, more pages to number etc. In short, it means more elements to have problems with. Secondly, much of this narrative changes year after year, necessitating a process of collecting, organizing and updating hundreds of pages of content.  3) Graphs & pictures Annual Financial Statements rarely include graphs & pictures. They tend to be very utilitarian documents, comprised almost exclusively of tables of data and a few pages of narrative in the notes section. Very few of our clients even add a logo or picture to the cover page!  Contrast this with the budget book. The vast majority of these documents contain many graphical elements including: organization charts graphs pictures of ongoing projects, the finance team, local wild life etc. A quick review of one of the budget book for one of our clients showed that in the 425 pages, there were nearly 300 graphical elements! Just like the challenges listed above in large narrative sections, graphical elements must be managed and updated year after year. To make matters worse, consider that many finance professionals are not expert in how to use graphical elements to maximize communication effectiveness.  4) A much broader collaboration In most organizations, assembling the annual financial statements is primarily the task of the core finance team. While dozens of folks may contribute reconciliations and supporting documents, perhaps only a handful of people contribute to the statements directly.  For the budget book, dozens or even hundreds of people contribute to that huge volume of text we mentioned earlier. It might only be a few paragraphs per person, but it seems like every Tom, Dick & Wendy contribute to the budget book content.  That means the team that assembles the book needs to track who is contributing to each section. Then they need to know if that individual provided their content yet, and when they do provide the content someone has to make sure that it gets reviewed, approved and finally correctly inserted into the end report. That is a lot of little steps which must be repeated potentially hundreds of times to arrive at the completed book. The End Result The end result of these four points is one absolute fact. If your budget document is hundreds of pages bigger than your financial statements, budget book automation will be an incredibly valuable accomplishment for your organization.
Budget book automation provides massive value for universities & governments by reducing time investment, eliminating errors & more. Here's why...
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