A day late and a dollar short is not where you want to be in a pandemic. For local government finance leaders, timely and relevant data is crucial for planning, budgeting, reporting, and transparency; however, many towns, cities, counties, and state agencies struggle to get the right data when they need it. So, what can they do?
At OpenGov Transform 2020 local government leaders shared solutions for addressing these data challenges. Four key lessons emerged across the day from local government finance leaders who are making budgeting and planning more understandable and usable for their councils and communities in a year of extreme uncertainty.
1) Flatten the curve with scenario planning
In a year of instability for Minneapolis, MN, the budget team has been able to proactively plan for the impacts of multiple risk events.
To diminish the impact of revenue loss, Minneapolis, MN develops reasonable guardrails to help the City to identify times where early action is needed to offset deeper losses down the road.
The City uses scenario modeling to allow for quick and easy pivoting. Micah Intermill, Budget Director for Minneapolis, recommends that finance teams new to scenario planning start with what they know.
“It is really easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of planning/predicting the future. From there, move to the known knowns and known unknowns,” Intermill recommends.
“First look at your funding mix → trends year over year, revenue streams (sales tax vs. property taxes), and ask what are the big levers and figuring out the external variables that will impact your plans and when do things change,” he explains.
Finally, to communicate scenario plans internally and externally, create a single place like a content-rich story delineating the scenarios and the planned response to ensure everyone is on the same page.
2) Keep long-term investments on track even amidst uncertainty
Watch: Beyond Budget Building: Creating Decision Transparency for Your Government
Featuring: Micah Intermill, Budget Director, City of Minneapolis, MN; Mayor Bob DaSilva, City of East Providence, RI.
East Providence, RI Mayor Bob DaSilva is dually-focused on identifying cost savings while also supporting long-term investments that will make a difference in East Providence in terms of jobs and livability. Under Mayor DaSilva’s leadership, East Providence earned a credit rating upgrade this year despite the macroeconomic headwinds.
“Infrastructure investment brings people to the community and economic benefit is heightened -- if you are going to spend money, do something that has a long-term impact,” he recommends. Mayor DaSilva provided the example of East Providence using grants to build a respiratory clinic to support immediate-term and long-term needs related to COVID-19.
The key to helping others see the bigger picture when it comes to savings and investments is being transparent. East Providence adopted an interactive budget to let constituents explore the budget and provided explanations and descriptions of funds and how they are utilized.
“Folks may not be looking for financial transparency, but it needs to be there so that in times like these you can readily point to information,” explains Mayor DaSilva.
Both Intermill and Mayor DaSilva agreed that focusing attention on the goals and investments that the City is making with the budget, rather than backwards-looking financial statements like the CAFR, generates more interest and engagement.
3) Connect data and stories to provide a clear picture of the budget
Watch: Get Over Your PDF/Paper Book: How to Build an Interactive Budget Featuring: Sarah Lynds, Finance Director, City of Sandpoint, ID; Lynn Williams, Budget Analyst, City of Roswell, GA; and Pak Lin, Administrative Services Director, Town of Colma, CA
In a year where cities faced multiple amendments to the budget, it became no longer feasible to spend the time to update a paper or PDF budget. Sandpoint, ID, Roswell, GA, and Colma, CA, adapted quickly by taking steps to improve the interconnections between the budget data, internal performance dashboards, and their published interactive budgets.
Getting to a place where they were confident about data enabled their teams to try new approaches this year:
“We saved a ton of time on the back end...even while we were still building out the budget, our department heads were able to go in and start writing the narrative for their sections,” explains Sara Lynds, Finance Director, City of Sandpoint, ID.
“We had balanced the budget when COVID hit...we were able to work remotely, collaborate and make changes easily...changes to the budget flowed into the interactive, public-facing budget without additional work,” describes Lynn Williams, Budget Analyst, City of Roswell, GA
As a result of their shift to interactive budgeting, Roswell, GA was able to get its budget published on time without disruptions from amendments and provide the public with up-to-date details about the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Colma, CA was able to dispense with its paper and PDF budget copies that required so much maintenance. Sandpoint, ID is tracking its performance measures to show the impact of spend on the City’s key strategic priorities.
3) Get the data flowing so your team can focus on what matters most
Watch: Innovation Through Integration: OpenGov's Cloud ERP for Budgeting teams Featuring: Jeremy Dennis, Town Manager, Town of Portola Valley, CA
Portola Valley, CA faced a more fundamental challenge of getting both the Town’s finances and the team’s time to add up. The finance team was spending too much time trying to get the numbers from disparate systems to match up and not enough time thinking about how to do more strategic work of forecasting, planning, performance measures, and interactive budgeting.
To better connect their data, systems, and processes, Portola Valley chose to partner with OpenGov and implement the OpenGov ERP Cloud. Working hand-in-hand with Portola Valley’s team, OpenGov is standing up its Cloud ERP with minimal disruption to the ongoing business of the Town. Traditionally resource-heavy processes are now being streamlined, and the team is being freed up to focus more on the work that matters.
When data flows automatically into reports, it frees up the finance team to spend time on analysis and sharpening the narrative details. This investment in ideas is up-leveling the conversation with Council and with the community.
Better data, better context, and better understanding of the Town’s financial investments and costs puts everyone on a better plane to make tradeoffs and contribute constructively to the financial conversation.
Read the insights from all OpenGov Transform 2020 sessions:
For Citizen Services leaders: The Call to Improve Customer Experience in Government Is Coming from Within the Building
For Finance leaders: There Has Never Been a Better Time for Local Government Finance Transformation