ClearGov Budgets hopes to wean small governments off spreadsheets.
Massachusetts-based startup ClearGov has announced a new budgeting tool for small governments and school districts to better forecast revenue and expenses, communicate between departments and document the process in case of an audit.
Building on the company’s past data platforms for comparing small and mid-sized public agencies, ClearGov Budgets is essentially an online portal for creating and sharing budgets. This puts it in competitive territory already occupied by companies such as OpenGov, Questica (now part of GTY Holdings) and Neubrain.
ClearGov CEO Chris Bullock said the platform was inspired by what he heard from clients who wanted to simplify, visualize and update their fiscal planning processes. With an Excel spreadsheet, he said, it can be difficult for outside parties like city council members to participate or see how the budget evolved over time.
In addition to improving communications and documentation, the new platform is supposed to reduce the potential for human errors that occur when people collaborate on something as complex as an annual budget across multiple spreadsheets.
“We started talking to [officials] about their budget processes, and it became very clear that budgeting was one of the most, if not the most, painful processes that any town or school district goes through. And a large majority seemed to be stuck in spreadsheets,” Bullock said. “There are two problems with that: one, there are transcription errors, often versioning issues as well, and two, from the perspective of the department head, there’s very little transparency into the budget thereafter. They submit their numbers to the finance team, and it’s difficult for them to track changes to their budget over time.”
Streamlining communications is not a replacement for in-person meetings and hearings, he said, but the platform helps put everyone on the same page while creating a thorough record of their decisions.
“A lot of those conversations happen behind closed doors and there’s no record of them,” Bullock said. “Here, they’re having those conversations within the platform, and it’s giving a digital audit trail that can be exported at any time.”
A news release from the company touted another feature — a forecasting tool for estimating future expenses and revenues, one that uses a form of artificial intelligence called a Long Short-Term Memory (LSTM) recurrent neural network for making complex predictions from small data sets. Bullock said with this technology, specifically building upon the Keras neural network as the framework, ClearGov Budgets can predict funding and expenditures per line item, even where available data is inconsistent.
“The more advanced regression analysis we’re doing through neural networks allows us to overcome that lack of data. It uses some pretty sophisticated artificial intelligence to make more accurate forecasts,” he said. “We’re dealing with small to mid-sized governments that just don’t have the staff or the resources to do [those analyses otherwise].”
Bullock added that a more detailed budget forecast can drive better bond ratings, too.