How Workiva’s ‘Miracle’ Solution Shaved Time and Costs for Chicago Public Schools
- Challenging end-of-year ACFR and PAFR workloads
- High volume of data that needed to be updated frequently and quickly
- Tight deadlines that could be costly if extended
- Reduced overtime by 500 hours
- Saved $30,000 in external professional service fees
- Finished 80% of financial statements and completed both ACFR and PAFR reports ahead of deadline with live-linking features
Why They Chose Workiva
- Financial Reporting
- Management Reporting
While most of us enjoyed our holiday breaks in 2019 and 2020, Dongmei Li, Assistant Controller for Chicago Public Schools (CPS), buried her head in reams of popular annual financial report (PAFR) and annual comprehensive financial report (ACFR) spreadsheets to reach the strict, year-end statutory filing deadlines.
But while she was with her former employer, the County of Montgomery, Maryland, she first discovered automated reporting’s potential with the Workiva platform.
While she was trying to finish CPS’ daunting paper trail of reports during those long holiday nights, she thought of her first strategic move to improve financial operations: Workiva. Later, with F.H. Black & Company’s advisory expertise, she implemented Workiva’s connected solutions, which supplied CPS the resources it needed to make quicker work of the ACFR and PAFR reports.
The clock winds down
To reach the unforgiving PAFR and ACFR filing cut-off points, Dongmei and her crew clocked in nearly 1,000 hours in overtime while working weekends and evenings during holiday break—and still, the deadlines pressed in. In 2020, CPS submitted its reports on December 30, the day before the due date—and in prior years, the organization had to apply for extensions.
Dongmei also noted that during the 2020 sprint, she worked 30 hours straight to complete initial reporting drafts to hit the board’s earmarked meeting date. Throughout the process, she had to incorporate a flurry of comments coming in from all directions, such as internal auditors, the controller, external auditors, and third-party consultants—fees from which amounted to around $30,000.
Disconnected and manual processes stunted timelines, while working grueling hours hit a tipping point.
An old seed begins to bear fruit
In her former role with the County of Montgomery, Maryland, Dongmei was first introduced to automation’s promise while at a GFOA conference, where she came into contact with Workiva. Fast forward, a Workiva representative then presented Workiva’s solutions to the county to help manage its employee retirement plan.
During one of her interviews for the role at CPS, Dongmei was asked how she would improve financial operations. Credentialed with an Excellence in Reporting award, her strategies, she said, would pivot on the potential automation could bring.
2020: An automation odyssey
Although leadership was behind automation implementation in spirit, Dongmei still had to present a business case with tangible results against ROI uncertainty. Also, modernizing CPS’ reporting systems was the first major project for Dongmei in her new role, but she had earlier experience rolling out major ERP modernization upgrades that came with unique challenges.
However, everyone was feeling the strain from the Great Resignation and the labor-intensive, manual reporting headaches—both of which moved the needle toward green-lighting CPS’ first Workiva pilot program in 2020.
But Dongmei needed some additional insights to help roll out an unprecedented effort, so she sought F.H. Black & Company Incorporated’s consultation. She happened to be paired with Darryl Parker who “knows everything,” she said, and was “...one of the best consultants to help us pull all this together, especially in the cloud.” Not only did Darryl guide implementation, but he also “...gave training to our entire team, who would need this software as a basic user. He gave great training information and answered all kinds of questions,” she said.
The first launch wrapped up in 2021, and the results were immediate. With automation, 80% of CPS’ financial statements were buttoned up with a few clicks, curbing reporting timeframes and labor costs. In fact, Dongmei and her team completed both the ACFR and PAFR reports before the holiday break in 2021 while reducing overtime by 500 hours. “Workiva kind of saved my life,” she said.
Workiva ticks all the boxes
With her time in the field, Dongmei knew of other platforms that offered similar solutions and considered them for CPS’ needs. But Workiva’s solutions surpassed other competitors’ offerings.
Data linkage is a key feature of other platforms but not at Workiva’s scale. As a government entity, CPS has many financial and supplemental statements, as well as schedules with various statistical sections—for instance, the ACFR has over 200 pages of documentation. Due to the volume and complexity of these filings, she needed a solution that was robust but had the right standard features for basic users to process CPS’ level of reporting.
With Workiva, Dongmei said “I set up one master file and a worksheet, and the information flowed to all the different schedules—it’s done, just like some kind of miracle happens, you know. Workiva saved so much time and headache, and improved accuracy.”
A solution that offered powerful data lineage capabilities was a baseline qualification for her. But data presentation is equally important when disclosing the ACFR and PAFR, which are reviewed by stakeholders who don’t have a background in public finance. Using legacy desktop systems and exporting PDFs created formatting issues for both ACFR and PAFR. But after working with Workiva, Dongmei and her crew were highly impressed with its presentation of CPS’ reports, which she felt were elevated to the top tier of government entity submissions.
Also, customization options were critical. But Dongmei heard from the street that financial teams were having holdups in making customizations post-implementation with other platforms—particularly, clients were having to coordinate back and forth with service teams. Dongmei didn’t want this inconvenience to potentially push back PAFR and ACFR reporting schedules.
And, with other solutions, changes to standard implementations can be costly. But with Workiva, Dongmei and her teams made adjustments easily on the fly without any intermediary hassles.
Auditors also benefited. They collaborated in sync with her financial teams to add and edit comments and footnotes in real time. And with Workiva’s attachment features, Dongmei appended additional information to the auditors’ assessments and sent off the entire filing package to statutory authorities with just a keystroke.
Using Workiva’s management and financial reporting solutions have helped Dongmei and CPS’ financial operations tremendously. Moreover, she’s seen holistically how technology can transform CPS’ financial management strategies wholesale.
With the added ease in working with auditors, Dongmei wants to attain the same efficiencies in her audit operations as in her financial and accounting applications. And due to the successful pilot program and Workiva’s scalability, attaining buy-in for successive Workiva implementations has been easier, so she intends to roll out Workiva’s audit management solution in the next several months. “Not only is the office of controller going to have a better operation, but internal auditing and also our entire internal audit department will have a much better solution to support their mission,” she said.
Her overall experience in using Workiva has given Dongmei a positive outlook. ”Open data transparency and accountability—it's all going to be improved just because of this wonderful tool, Workiva, we have. And I'm really confident that with this whole package, the future is going to be very bright,” she said.
She added, “So next year in 2023, I think we're going to be better than before, and I'm going to have less overtime and a regular life.”