Budget Ease

Santa Clara County, Calif.'s budget is getting easier to make and use.

by / April 16, 2002
Santa Clara County, Calif., Budget Manager Leslie Crowell needed to make the Bay Area jurisdiction's $1.2 billion budget easy to use and easy to make. The three requirements were the transfer of data had to be streamlined, the formatting had to be attractive and the distribution had to be consistent.

"We wanted it to look pretty and be easy to use," explained Crowell. The county had been using Adobe FrameMaker since 1992 to move data from Oracle databases and create the annual 750-page budget. "It worked, but it was a lot of trouble," Crowell said.

After looking at what was working in other counties and in the private sector, Santa Clara County administrators settled on a $100,000 Adobe Solutions Network package that integrated FrameMaker and Adobe Acrobat software with FiniteMatter's PatternStream program to create a document that incorporated a lot of graphics. The county dictated a master template that defined how information would be formatted. The source of each piece of data was specified and PatternStream imported the raw information, creating a single document in a PDF form that can be distributed as a printed report, or as a digital document that can be opened by almost any system using Acrobat Reader. Regardless of the hardware, software, printer or browser, the result looks just like the original FrameMaker file. And the resulting document is searchable by category -- a plus in the ease of use column.

Reaching Perfection

Once the template was perfected, the laborious process was cut by an estimated 30 percent in Santa Clara County. Mitch Tevlin, manager of budget development services for Orange County in Southern California, which adopted a similar solution two years ago, said the change was evident in the revision process where changes to the 500-page document went from a two-day process to a six-hour task.

One change Santa Clara's Crowell hoped to make, but didn't fully realize, was vendor independence. She hoped that the technology would be simple enough that her staff would be able to operate the system in-house. Although the department included experienced Java programmers, the program was simply too complicated. "Changing a period required several strings of code," said Crowell. "It turned out that it was easier to pay [Adobe's support people] on an ongoing basis." Santa Clara has budgeted a maximum of $25,000 per year for support and it has never exceeded that amount. "They are very service oriented and it has actually worked out in the end," Crowell said.

Crowell brought together user groups of council members and administrators to get feedback on what was working and what needed to be improved. "In the budget department, we were just too close to the numbers to be objective," she said. "If there are too many numbers then it can be data rich and information poor because numbers can't speak for themselves." What budget analysts learned was columns of spreadsheet numbers weren't enough. Graphics, pie charts and pull-put boxes made the information on expenses, such as how much money would be going to sheriff's deputies, hospitals and park rangers, much more understandable. The same was true in the case of complicated revenue projections.

Crowell didn't depend entirely on the focus group, however, because people don't pay as much attention to the documents in a contrived setting as when they are looking to see how a budget impacts them in a real-life situation. "Much of the response in a focus group setting is just lip service."

Beauty in Numbers

So, is it working?

"We view success by silence," Crowell said half-joking. "If they aren't complaining, then it must be good."

Santa Clara County's solution is really being put to the test now. Creating a design that makes everyone happy in flush years is one thing. Passing the no-complaints understanding test when the county is trying to cut budgets -- like this year -- is even more difficult. "It is more important than ever that the information be easy to understand when departments are looking for places to cut spending," Crowell said. Ever the optimist, however, the Santa Clara number cruncher looked at the latest challenge as an opportunity. "That is why we are always improving."

Santa Clara's next project will be to put the information on a CD-ROM linked to the background files for those who want to trace the columns of data back to the sources. Christine Hubbard, product marketing manager of Adobe Systems' ePaper Solutions Group, sees digital signatures on government documents as the last sticking point in the digitalization of government. "We have set up the databases and document management programs, but we had to take the document out of the digital world to print it, sign it and file it as a piece of paper. Once signatures can be captured and stored electronically, that will close the loop."
J.T. Long Contributing Writer