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Under Pressure: Time for Government Finance Teams to Upgrade Tools

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government teams are under pressure to use more modern spreadsheet tools
October 13, 2020

Picture this: Janet, your long-time team member and the owner of your Agency Financial Report or Comprehensive Annual Financial erport (CAFR) just retired. Now the report is due, and your finance team is working nights and weekends to decode the massive Excel® macro files Janet created to produce it. Frustration is mounting. The deadline is looming. And overtime costs are adding up. 

Cue the Queen/Bowie classic "Under Pressure." “Pressure pushing down on me…pressing down on you…” 

That scenario captures some of the personnel concerns, process problems, and technology issues that many federal, state, and local finance teams have dealt with for years. 

Then, along comes COVID-19. Workiva recently commissioned Governing to survey state and local government leaders about how the pandemic affects their work and forecasts. The responses are eye-opening: 

  • 35% anticipate reducing overtime in the next 6 to 12 months due to limited resources
  • 27% expect furloughs 
  • 34% say communication and collaboration are top challenges with remote work

Freddie Mercury couldn’t have put it better: “These are the days it never rains, but it pours…”

Pre-pandemic pressures

Three key forces combined to create this challenging situation for government finance teams.

1. An aging workforce. “Janet” personifies one of the biggest issues for government finance leaders: the “silver tsunami.” The Government Accountability Office reported that in 2017, more than 31% of career federal employees would be eligible to retire within five years. That timeline is just about up. 

While government workers are retiring in droves, younger people aren’t rushing to fill their seats. A study from the Partnership for Public Service found that while 23.9% of the total U.S. workforce is under 30, only 6.2% of the federal workforce is. Chalk some of it up to perception. Working for the government might not have the same luster—or pay scale—for a new college graduate as a job at a Fortune 500 company or an edgy startup. 

2. Siloed processes. The team struggling to decipher Janet’s custom macros illustrates another common problem for government finance teams: siloed processes. Due to personnel limitations, lack of cross-training, and outdated team structures, ownership of specific reports and tasks often rests with one team member. That’s not a problem when the team is working together in one place, but a retirement, sick leave, or pandemic can blow holes in the process and grind work to a halt. 

3. Reliance on desktop files. Most government finance teams are still dependent on desktop files and outdated programs that require data to be exported before it can be used, shared, or analyzed. These restrictive programs require extensive manual effort, complicate collaboration, limit transparency, and expose finance teams to risk. That’s why finance leaders around the nation are encouraging their teams to loosen their grip on Excel and explore purpose-built cloud solutions and platforms to do their work. 

Due to budget limitations and red tape, government agencies don’t always have access to cutting-edge technology (or tech that’s even near the edge). As a workaround, teams are resorting to standalone tech tools. For example, during the pandemic, teams working remotely are using Slack to share files. Sure, it’s newer technology. But, if Slack isn’t connected to government agencies’ internal systems, it doesn’t solve long-running collaboration and version control problems—it just moves them to the cloud.

The pressure release valve: better ways of working 

Implementing sustainable, repeatable processes that work regardless of staff disruptions or problems in the wider world eases the pressure on government finance teams. One key to unlocking these better processes? Better technology. “Fast followers” in the government sector can track the trail blazed by the private sector companies that have already proven the value of cloud-based financial reporting platforms. 

One of those government finance fast followers is Jenny Larson, Director of Finance and Budget for the City of Dubuque, Iowa. The city had been using a mix of disconnected applications that required time-intensive, manual tasks to produce budgets and projections. 

One number changed that. A few years ago, a revenue figure was duplicated in the city budget. Leaders wanted to prevent a repeat of that error and sought a solution that would support a better process for the finance team. They switched to Workiva. The platform has streamlined the team’s entire processes including the CAFR, city budget, projections, workflows, vehicle fleet inspections, and more. 

“So now that we’ve regained that time, we can spend a lot more time doing community engagement on the budget and improving other areas of the budget and working on some of our other processes,” says Jenny.

Government finance leaders who have the vision and ability to upgrade their technology can reduce the pressure on their teams and truly transform the way they work. 

Here's what better technology can do:

1. Centralize work. Cloud-based solutions consolidate data, projects, and processes in one place. Gone are the days of having key spreadsheets, like Janet’s, locked up on a team member’s desktop. Centralizing the work lets multiple team members collaborate on documents at one time, supports transparency, creates a single source of truth for data, and streamlines work processes. And, it’s all easily accessible wherever, whenever, which is ideal for teams forced to work remotely during an unexpected disruption or natural disaster. 

2. Improve productivity. Financial reporting solutions include many time- and sanity-saving features like linked data, automated processes, report templates, and dashboards showing the progress of tasks. That functionality increases transparency and reduces risk while freeing teams up to analyze data and actually use it—not just manage it. 

3. Enhance experience. Supporting employees’ well-being, especially during the pandemic, is important for every employer—including the government. Users of cloud-based platforms report less overtime and fewer weekends and late nights at the office. That means better work/life balance.

4. Ensure accuracy. Teams that constantly export and import data to share with each other or to load on multiple reporting systems risk problems with data accuracy and integrity. Updated reporting technology offers secure and connected data that’s available to all users and synced across all reports.

5. Uphold the mission. New technology also underpins something more important for the dedicated finance professionals who work for government entities. And, that’s mission. These civil servants want to use their expertise to support their organizations’ larger goals, not cut and paste thousands of lines of data and chase down version 23 of the city’s budget. More meaningful work that’s focused on the greater good is especially appealing to younger recruits, particularly millennials who put a high value on purpose in their work. 

Cloud platforms like Workiva can ease pressure on federal, state, and local government finance teams and help them feel more fulfilled as they focus on what the numbers mean for the agencies, cities, and people they serve. 

How can Workiva can help transform work for your government finance team? Request a demo to find out.

Excel is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries.
 

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