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Updating a Government Budget When Public Leaders Can't Wait

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organized and scattered papers
May 18, 2020

There's nothing like a natural disaster or global pandemic to throw a state or local budget into a state of turmoil that leaves the heads of government in a panic. How can budget departments get a handle on how to fund everything? And, how can you keep the public and key stakeholders apprised of an ever-changing landscape fraught with political and personal landmines?

Public agencies and elected leaders depend on reliable and real-time data to make difficult decisions—including how to shift resources and respond to emerging needs and sources of aid that either arrive or evaporate. Across the country, elected leaders are proactively examining how to adjust multimillion-dollar budget gaps.

Everyone is learning as they go in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some considerations for short- and long-term adjustments to help the unsung heroes in finance and accounting.  

Quick wins: identify tasks you can automate

 

Think about the tasks you do that not only require a lot of manual effort but are repeated every week, month, quarter, or year. (Maybe even sometimes in the same day!) Is there a way to automate those tasks or handle them more efficiently? It could be anything from managing workflow, to pulling fresh data, to chasing down approvals for new equipment purchases, for example. 

If you work from home, it won't be easy to stroll over to the mayor's office for a wet-ink signature on a contract. But, electronic signatures could be a safe and more efficient option.

Before the pandemic, some cities took on transformation initiatives to move work from on-premise programs to cloud platforms, enabling their teams to automate some manual tasks and work securely at any time, from any location.

  • Jenny Larson, a finance and budget director, said her city has automated and formalized informal processes. The City of Dubuque now has an automated fleet vehicle inspection and replacement process to make sure the right people receive alerts automatically to review and approve requests. 
  • The City of Pittsburgh is connecting data from its budget software into reports that they build inside the Workiva connected reporting platform. Graphs, charts, and text descriptions in a budget document are linked back to a central database holding the data points. When the city budget team needs to update a data point at the source, it automatically updates the information across all linked instances within a 400-page budget document. That helps them quickly and accurately implement budget changes.
  • Earlier in my career as a financial reporting supervisor for the City of Missoula, I remember copying and pasting thousands of rows of spreadsheet data to make sure I had the most recent information to create certain reports. I found I could use Workiva to connect data from sources like ERPs directly to my reporting environment and set it to update automatically every night. That saved me from spending 40 minutes each morning pulling data myself.

Mid- to long-term solutions: invest in helping internal teams

In the longer term, this is a reminder that we need to invest in infrastructure that helps public employees serve their constituencies better. Government entities often focus significant time and energy on public-facing services that get a lot of ink—or now, Google searches. (Think police, fire, public works, roads.) 

All of those services are supported by internal departments that need modern tools to do their best work. I can tell you, there are probably a lot of government agencies out there working with software that is at least 20–30 years old, and replacement is continually pushed back. "Maybe next year" has become a frustrating mantra for many. It's tough to work in a virtual environment with programs that were never meant to be accessed remotely or to integrate with modern web-based applications. 

Governors, mayors, city managers, and agency leaders, these unprecedented times are an opportunity to bring internal departments into the 21st century—or even the 20th century—so they can work more efficiently from any location. 

Finance and accounting teams often don't get the same love as public-facing teams. (I know firsthand, as a former city financial reporting supervisor!) But investing in technology that allows those teams behind the scenes to work more efficiently, with more real-time data, will mean faster, more accurate information for the tough decisions you need to make. 

We're all in this together. If you're looking for other areas that may be quick wins or longer-term initiatives for accelerating budget updates without sacrificing accuracy, reach out. We can share what we're seeing other organizations do to transform financial reporting with a fast return on investment—and discuss what challenges you're currently facing. 

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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