Financial Wizard

Web-based budget-reporting tool makes the budget process a little less painful in Nashville, Tenn.

by / May 26, 2005
Three years ago, departments within the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tenn., (the Metro) relied on the limited tools available to them in a J.D. Edwards ERP system to submit annual budget numbers.

The information came to the Metro's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in disparate forms, which made analyzing and preparing budget information for the Metro Council's approval a time-consuming process. To gather departmental data into one budget document, OMB staff managed a complex series of spreadsheets and downloads, which were difficult to control.

"Departments submitted their budget requests in any number of ways -- Word document, Excel spreadsheet, etc.," said Richard McKinney, CIO and director of the Metro's Department of Information Technology Services (ITS). "That was a problem. Taking all the different budgets and trying to roll them into a single budget document or database was impossible, so budget data had to be rekeyed by the budget office. Government budgeting is so unique and different that traditional ERP systems come up short."

The OMB worked with ITS to streamline the process. "Our goal was to create a virtually paperless system that would produce a very effective tool for agency input and allow us to manage the output of Web-based databases," said David Manning, the Metro's director of finance.

OMB Director Talia Lomax-O'dneal worked with ITS Project Manager Cassandra Davis to develop Web-based tools to make the budgetary process smoother for the OMB. The result is WEBudget, a secure, Web-based application built with Microsoft .NET and SQL Server that allows users to input data from any location and gives the OMB a way to monitor the departments' progress during the process.

Breaking Down WEBudget
WEBudget is organized into a series of wizards to help departments organize and report data needed for creating their budgets, such as revenue estimates, budget modifications, operating capital, performance measures, capital improvements, mayor's hearing sheets and position control.

Davis said users can extract the data they input to create a report by using Microsoft Word and Excel and can also see a list of the entries, as well as the details of each entry.

The jurisdiction saw immediate benefits after using WEBudget.

"With WEBudget, everyone's budget submittals are done on the same electronic forms, and upon submission, are automatically inserted into a single Metrowide budget database that, in turn, is capable of generating a single budget document," said McKinney.

The previous budget-reporting process elicited paper forms and spreadsheets that took time to wade through, Davis said. WEBudget collects data in one place for use by many, ensures a consistent format and provides upfront data validation. This process lets both OMB staff and agency staff view the data simultaneously.

Having the data in one document allows Manning's office to more closely monitor departments' progression during the process, and even get a jump on making budgetary decisions.

"The budget system has a methodology that allows me to look at it and understand what step in the process has been completed on what date," Manning said. "One of the values of WEBudget is it allows us to much more effectively and efficiently translate the work product into a document to publish the data on the Web."

This way, Manning can determine whether a department's input was completed or whether it's still in an earlier stage.

The key for the jurisdiction during the budget process was time. Before WEBudget, it was a Herculean effort to get budgets submitted on time and give the OMB a chance to scrutinize the numbers, McKinney said.

"By automating this consolidation of information, the OMB can spend more time analyzing the submitted budgets and preparing for the budget hearings with the finance director and the mayor that constitute the approval process."

Spreading the Wealth
All Metro departments were required to use the system upon implementation.

After each budget cycle, the Finance Department and OMB meet to review the process.

"Each year, we meet right after the budget process is over to discuss what we learned that season and how those lessons could be incorporated into the application," McKinney said. "We talk to OMB, Finance and users in the departments to get recommendations for improvement."

WEBudget, currently in its third version, has since been integrated with the enterprise financial system's data by creating a data warehouse.

"This opened the door to allow other applications to feed off the same data instead of duplicating it within each application/software package," Davis said, noting that WEBudget also is integrated with Active Directory to eliminate the need for a separate user name and password.

As improvements are made year after year, the hope is that other agencies outside the Metro will be drawn to its potential. Though WEBudget was originally developed specifically for the Metro, interested departments can tailor it to their needs if they decide to give it a shot.

"The project team carefully planned the design to ensure scalability and adaptation," said Davis. "It would, however, require further modifications to make the application turnkey."

McKinney even took the application to Tennessee CIO Bill Ezell, to garner statewide interest.

"When we first demoed it to him last summer, it was last year's version 2.0," said Davis. "At that demo, we also shared with him our extensive plans for this current upgrade, version 3.0, and that we would be done by the first quarter of 2005."

Once revisions are made to WEBudget, McKinney will go back to Ezell to discuss the possibility of wider deployment. Identifying the shortcomings of standard ERP systems was the first step in creating WEBudget, and McKinney and company hope to see other jurisdictions nationwide benefit from their product, and take it to heights that probably haven't yet been realized.
Eliot Cole Contributing Writer