For Rosiland Brooks-Harris, deputy director of finance with the city of Rochester, N.Y., putting together the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) is a Herculean task.

Each year her team compiles up to 100 financial documents from at least 10 departments. “It takes hours and hours and hours. We have part of it in Word and part of it in Excel. Once you pull the final document together, things are always shifting. It has been a huge headache.”

This year promises to be different. The city has implemented Wdesk, a financial reporting platform from Workiva that Brooks-Harris says could shave at least three weeks off the four-month process of compiling the CAFR.

In the past, any time a record changed within the report, city staffers had to manually comb through the document looking for every instance in which that alteration would cause another number to change. A rounding error, for instance, could cause budgets to go out of alignment and could also have an impact on the accuracy of supporting notes and documentation.

These kinds of issues can have major repercussions in a government budget document. In addition to obligations around transparency and accountability, government accounting offices also have to worry that a slip-up in the CAFR could impact their municipality’s ability to access needed funding.

“Governments issue bonds, and the more transparent you are, the better rating you get on your bond, which means you pay less interest. And the CAFR is the main vehicle the rating agencies and the insurers use to rate the governments,” said Workiva President, Chief Operating Officer, and Director Marty Vanderploeg.

“If your CAFR is late or inaccurate, if you are always adding addendums and fixing stuff, you start to get a reputation, and some of them are notoriously bad,” he said. “If you put out a CAFR with mistakes, there is more at risk than people think.”

Improved process

Brooks-Harris said the new software has markedly improved the CAFR process for her office. The software automatically links related data, so that any change is reflected across the entire report and in the supporting documentation.

“Now we have everything linked together so if you change a number at one place in the document, it changes it everywhere,” she said. 

Having a more standardized system also helps the team to keep up with frequent changes to the reporting guidelines issued by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board. “They may come out with a new pronouncement around reporting on debt, saying it has to be laid out in this way, that it has to address these points. Or maybe you have to report it only in the notes, or you have to report it in a specific way in the financials. That happens all the time,” Brooks-Harris said. The new software helps ensure that those changes are carried through consistently across the entire report.

The transition to the new system has presented some challenges. With longtime staffers showing some reluctance to make a change, Brooks-Harris has focused on training, assigning small, simple tasks at first to help people get adjusted to the new format.

Data transfer was somewhat laborious, too. A single staffer working part-time on the project took several months to put all the old documents into the new system and to ensure that all the interconnections between data points were accurate.

Still, the net result promises to be worth the effort.

“It makes our lives easier,” Brooks-Harris said. “We are slowly but surely getting away from the manual stuff, and now when I put in something new, I don’t have to worry about things shifting. The final product is always up to date, regardless of what changes.”