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Sharing Budget Updates When Public Meetings Are Held from Home

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Part three on city budgets
May 21, 2020

In my last couple of blog posts, I talked about questions state and local governments can consider or are currently asking themselves as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how teams can update budgets quickly.

Now, you may be asking yourself how to keep elected leaders and the public informed of those budget changes, especially when many of us are still not comfortable meeting in large groups. Until scientists find a vaccine for the new coronavirus, it could be months before state and local officials—let alone residents—feel comfortable attending public meetings in person, if at all.

Short of holding public hearings in a stadium where everyone can sit at least six feet apart, going virtual is probably the easiest and the best way to keep the public, key stakeholders, and government officials informed.

Keeping elected leaders up to date

Going over new budget requests in a packed conference room are a thing of the past. But, communication is still key. Consider upping the frequency of meetings, even if they're brief. If it were me, I'd probably schedule a weekly briefing on a Tuesday or Wednesday, to avoid catching people who are getting new directives on a Monday and are just trying to get their feet under themselves for the new week.

While my friends in corporate America are hopping on Zoom, Skype, or Google meetings, some government employee computers are so old that they don't have cameras. If you're one of the lucky teams using video conferencing, take advantage of it. Turn that camera on. No one cares right now if your hair isn't perfect streaming from your basement, living room, treehouse, or dungeon. And if your dog or child jumps in your lap or makes funny faces behind your back, don't worry. Seeing each other's faces and gestures makes a big difference for communication. 

If you don't have access to video conferencing, get creative. Email key documents ahead of time, so people can follow along during calls. If you're using real-time collaboration tools, people can all be in the same document at the same time during the call.

Don't forget to include your end users in the departments' administrative staff. They're usually the last to know final decisions but the first people who should know because they are the real heroes who keep our cities, states, and towns running!

Centralize work

To connect your administration to the work of your budget, finance, and accounting teams, find a collaborative space in the cloud where you can all review and edit documents, spreadsheets, and presentations together in real time. 

Use that collaborative environment to make sure leaders have everything they need to make decisions in one space. Even if you are providing them with a budget summary, for example, give them a way to drill down into your spreadsheets and presentations for more detail, if they want it.

  • For transparency, get in the habit of providing comments within the document and tracking responses there, too. (See what this looks like in the Workiva connected reporting platform.) 
  • Link data back to the source so reviewers can easily track data lineage. 
  • Where appropriate, you can attach or embed supporting documents or links to more information.

If you're not using a connected reporting platform like Workiva, consider taking advantage of existing software and virtual meeting applications, or temporarily use free options like Google SheetsTM or Google DocsTM. Just be sure your IT department is aware and that the application meets your security needs.

Consider identifying one person (or maybe two) to track key information, such as progress on requests for federal aid, or key tasks, such as responding to media requests. This way teams are not duplicating work. Often there's one person in every department doing the exact same thing. Save everyone some time, and share information across your centralized workspace.

Sharing updates with the public

The benefit of working in a centralized cloud workspace is that all the relevant information is in one place when it's ready to be presented to the public. With real-time collaboration in the cloud, everyone has access to the most recent version of a project, which reduces the risk that outdated information will be released. When the information is released, there is a level of comfort knowing what was shared with the public is the same information the decisions were based on. This will not prevent the media from shaping coverage of the budget, but there is solace knowing the numbers released are at least accurate. 

Some reporting platforms give you the ability to tag or label document sections, presentation slides, or spreadsheet tabs. Use those tags and labels to quickly show what is ready to be shared publicly and what still needs approval. 

We see corporate teams using the Workiva platform to ensure that what they report to the public is the same as what they report to their governing bodies. They can connect data from a single, centralized source to multiple reports and presentations for consistency. By linking the data across public filings prepared by the reporting team and news releases prepared by the investor relations team, late changes to source data are automatically updated across linked instances in all forms of documentation. In the same way, agencies' public affairs teams can make sure the data they distribute via press releases or official statements is what the budget team is sharing internally, even as information continually changes.

In times like these, being transparent with residents regarding your budget process—which includes priorities set by the city council or administration, the data you're reviewing, and how leaders are making decisions—can help build trust. And trust is exponentially more valuable when everything else in the world seems uncertain.

COVID-19 is posing new challenges for federal, state, and local budget teams. If you want to explore if Workiva can help you tackle them, reach out to our team, or browse these resources for adapting to the new normal

Google Docs and Google Sheets are trademarks of Google Inc.

About the Author

Before joining Workiva in 2020 as a Solutions Architect, Scott Paasch served in the City of Missoula Finance Department for 15 years. Scott managed the compilation, reporting, and publication of the annual budget for the city. As the city's Workiva platform administrator, he implemented the Workiva connected reporting and compliance platform for use on all aspects of the budget, from data collection to presenting the budget to the City Council to annual publication. Scott was on the forefront of using Wdata, developed by Workiva, to create efficiencies in producing the annual budget and CAFR.
 

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