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Governing for an Uncertain Future

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August 23, 2016

I recently presented to the Bay Area Chapter of the California Society of Municipal Finance Officers (CSMFO) on Governing for an Uncertain Future: Resiliency in Turbulent Times. We surveyed ways modern technology helps governments meet some of their most pressing challenges. More than ever, we need to protect our infrastructure, strengthen the workforce, create broad strategic alignment, and prepare for tomorrow.

1. Infrastructure investment is one of the League of California Cities’ top priorities, according to San Francisco’s Treasurer Jose Cisneros:

“Numerous studies suggest that not only is our infrastructure unprepared for growth, it isn’t in condition to adequately support even the current population. The infrastructure situation at the local level is bleak. Approximately 83 percent of Californians live, work and play in cities.”

It’s tough to reserve funds for future needs when today’s problems are so pressing. And it certainly isn’t easy to ask the electeds to set aside funds from current activities to replace or repair aging infrastructure, especially when infrastructure still works and may continue to perform beyond the electeds’ term.

Charlie Francis, a Subject Matter Expert at OpenGov, has written an Administrator’s Brief on Capital Improvement Planning and a Finance Officer’s Desk series on Capital Improvement Planning that provides considerable insight into this complicated subject.

Expensive, long-term issues like infrastructure are easier to manage when the government establishes a track record of open-handed and honest dialog, clear and accurate information, and proactive engagement. This gives local leaders a platform to work from when difficult decisions are needed. While the choices may still be as hard as ever, working from a basis of mutual trust and respect allows a more productive conversation and sets the stage for workable compromises.

When times are good, no one wants to think about bad times or put aside funds for a rainy day. Having a long-term perspective backed up by long-term history displayed meaningfully on the big screen can go a long way to advance the conversation.

2. Our changing workforce

37% of local government employees are over 50 years old and eligible for retirement soon; while just 12% are under 30 years old. You can read more about our thoughts and recommendations in the Administrator’s Primer on Enabling Millennials in Government.

“I’ll eat at least 30 slices of cake over the next five years” Andrew McCreery, Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania’s Finance Director says, “That’s one for every retirement party Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania’s municipal office will hold as about a quarter of our staff retires.”

He then describes three lessons he’s learned as a millennial finance director:

  • Millennials value data sharing.
  • They prefer speed and efficiency.
  • They’re working toward the same goals as other generations; they’re in government for the same reason other generations are: to serve citizens.

Modern technology helps governments meet these objectives by breaking down information silos between systems and departments. Better access to data and insights within the data enhances speed and fosters collaboration.

Julie Thuy Underwood asks some important questions we need to answer when recruiting millennials in Why Your Government Needs to Be a Hipster Organization. My own children could have been her models, and their job searches reflect the questions she asks:

  1. Does your organization place a high value on communicating a vision, goals, challenges and the big picture?
  2. Do employees have opportunities to learn new skills, gain valuable experience and possibly advance in their careers?
  3. Do employees have a say in their work environment or workplace conditions that affect them?
  4. Do you offer flexible work schedules?
  5. Are employees able to access workplace email, servers or key applications using their personal mobile devices?
  6. Does your organization have a diverse workforce?
  7. Do your managers provide ongoing feedback and input to employees?

We depend on strong resilient workforces that thrive in good times and bad. Tsunamis, tornadoes, and hurricanes demonstrate the vulnerability of modern infrastructures to nature. Wall Street’s meltdown and the subsequent recession remind us human-made disasters can also be devastating.

Groups, organizations, and even communities can develop a “culture of resilience:” the ability to rebound from the untoward effects of adversity – whether natural or man-made. Researchers have studied human resilience in individuals ranging from accountants to law enforcement personnel.

They found organizational resilience largely depends upon leadership. Key leadership personnel, often frontline leadership, appear to have the ability to “tip” an organization in the direction of resilience by demonstrating four core attributes:optimism, decisiveness, integrity, and open communications

Simply said, when a small number of high credibility individuals demonstrate, or “model” the behaviors associated with resilience, they have the ability to change the entire culture according to George S. Everly in Building a Resilient Organizational Culture from the Harvard Business Review.

3. Strategic alignment: Transparency and consensus

Government operates in a fishbowl. Being a leader is like sitting on the dunking stool at the county fair – every day.  You just have to keep drying yourself off and getting back up on the dias. The issues are daunting:

  • Interest groups can turn out at the drop of the virtual hat over the Internet to defend the library, park, sports program, or favorite annual event.
  • Labor unions take hits in the lean times and expect to share in the good times.
  • Media publish narratives with varying degrees of relationship to reality.
  • People cling to slivers of information and build their own truth.
  • Governments have mixed success sharing financial and performance facts with their staff.
  • Strategic planning is difficult and implementing decisions even harder.
  • Polls show 72% of Americans still have trust in local government, but it is less clear how to convert that trust to action.

Transparency websites are now a normal part of good governance, and the latest technology pushes them far beyond online PDF’s. The public and staff alike learn by exploring interactive reports and digging into the details that interest them. Citizens that see data expand in front of them gain new learning pathways that citizens to their governments in ways unknown before.

Sharing the facts effectively encourages better discourse, both in public forums and around the water cooler. It is much easier to find alignment when everyone shares the same set of facts, and can explore the alternatives for themselves.

Conclusion

In each of these four areas, powerful technology can help governments fulfill their obligations to citizens. GovTech companies such as OpenGov are using powerful data science and engineering teams to build solutions that bring governments closer to data-driven governance.

Governments that deploy better technology today will increase the odds of resiliently navigating whatever tough times the future may hold. Through better reporting, better transparency, and better collaboration during the budget process, governments can use data to inform their toughest decisions and win buy-in for necessary policies.

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Mike McCann moved into government service in Ukiah, then Monterey CA, after beginning his career in corporate (ADP, Wells Fargo Bank, Blue Shield of CA), not-for-profit (Blue Shield of Ca, Mendocino Private Industry Council), and start-up accounting. For the last 20 years, Mike has been hands-on with budget, financial reporting and accounting operations, including City budgets and CAFRs. He holds a B.S.  in Accounting from SJSU and M.S. in Instructional Technology from  CSUMB.

Contact Mike with questions or comments at mmccann@opengov.com.

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LocalGov Hero: Tanisha Briley

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We’re excited to announce Tanisha Briley as the recipient of OpenGov’s LocalGov Hero Award for August! The designation honors innovative local government leaders, and Tanisha definitely deserves this recognition.

Tanisha serves as Cleveland Heights, Ohio’s City Manager. But her devotion to public service began long before she sat at her desk in Cleveland Heights’ City Hall. Tanisha’s humble beginnings gave her several experiences that instilled a deep appreciation for public service.

Tanisha’s interest in public service endured throughout college. What began as an aspiration to volunteer on weekends blossomed into a desire to serve in government. She wanted, and found, a career centered around “making sure the community is better off than it was yesterday.”

After completing a management fellowship, Tanisha decided to become a City Manager. When Cleveland Heights posted a job opening for a new City Manager, Tanisha got the job. At Cleveland Heights, Tanisha set out to combine human, capital, and financial resources to accomplish the City Council’s goals.

It wasn’t easy.

The city faced deficits when Tanisha arrived. These fiscal issues stemmed in part from Cleveland Heights’ data limitations. Financial data was siloed in green-screen systems from the 1990s. Department directors had system licenses, but few could get the information they needed to manage their budget requests, track performance, and foster accountability. Cleveland Heights had to centralize its budget process and minimize stakeholder involvement; even the finance team barely touched the budget.

Tanisha also needed a better picture of the financial situation. She wanted to understand which functions needed more resources, which were working well, and how to shore up spending or generate more revenue. And Cleveland Heights had issues communicating this information to citizens; the city hadn’t been publishing a budget book.

Cleveland Heights needed a process change and Tanisha and her team began searching for a solution.

While at ICMA’s annual conference, Tanisha encountered OpenGov – the leader in management reporting and transparency – and wanted to sign up for the platform. Her description of what happened next illustrates her skills as a manager. Instead of micromanaging implementation, Tanisha decided to empower her capable staff to install and manage OpenGov. “Without Finance Director Tom Raguz and IT Director Jim Lambdin,” she explains, “none of this would have been possible.”

Tom and Jim worked with OpenGov’s Customer Success Team to quickly deploy and launch Cleveland Heights’ OpenGov portal. Tom continues to run the city’s OpenGov operation. Tanisha recognized the power of collaboration and took advantage of it foster innovation in her administration.

The efforts paid off.

Cleveland Heights’ first achievement with OpenGov was revamping the budget process. Tom ensured department directors got access to interactive charts and tables that depicted the city’s financials and performance. Since OpenGov understands complex government financials, department managers could pivot across revenues and expenses.

This increased accountability and ownership. Department directors could now participate in the budget process, and felt better about decisions. They had a better feel for where budget dollars were going. And after budget adoption, Tanisha and Tom could hold department managers accountable for their results. The budget process also now begins and ends with the finance team, as it should.

Cleveland Heights also improved labor negotiations using OpenGov. Since data in OpenGov reflects the city’s financial accounting structure, it’s easier for unions to trust city-provided data. Tanisha describes how referring labor councils to OpenGov built trust between the two sides during difficult negotiations.

We’re proud to call Tanisha Briley a Local Government Hero. By recognizing a serious problem, working with her team to innovate toward a solution, and collaborating with stakeholders across the government, Tanisha helped position Cleveland Heights’ government for success. We look forward to working with Tanisha, Tom, Jim, and others in Cleveland Heights to build on their progress.

Congratulations Tanisha!

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Millennials: My Last Management Frontier

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Click here to see a list of all editions of the Finance Officer’s Desk column.

Last week we explored how I managed multiple generations as a finance director.

My final challenge came when millennials entered the workforce, making my city multi-generational again! Millennials are motivated by working with other bright individuals and enjoying more time off. They are a product of the “drop down and click menu”.

Soaring like an Eagle

To better understand and manage millennials, I drew a matrix of generational motivations. It looked like this:

Traditionalists Baby-Boomers Generation X’ers Millennials
Motivated by… Being respected.

Security.

 

Being valued and needed.

Money.

 

Freedom and removal of rules.

Time Off.

 

Working with other bright people.

Time Off.

Then it suddenly struck me that I wasn’t looking at a matrix of competing values, but rather a continuum of human maturation! Let’s use some new terms:

Traditionalists Baby-Boomers Generation X’ers Millennials
Motivated by… From:

Being respected.

Security.

 

From:

Being valued and needed.

Money.

 

From:

Freedom and removal of rules.

Time Off.

 

From:

Working with other bright people.

Time Off.

  To:

Meeting one’s physiological and security needs.

To:

Meeting one’s security and social needs.

To:

Meeting one’s social and esteem needs.

To:

Meeting one’s esteem and self-actualization’s needs.

The trans-generational shift in our workforce over the last 60 years is akin to seeing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid being constructed through the lens of history!

With this revelation, I re-inventoried my management and mentoring skillset. It was time to emerge as a leader, not just a manager/mentor. Kicked out of the nest, growing my wing feathers, and learning to fly and hunt were but the forerunners of becoming a majestic, soaring bald-headed eagle! (Figurative as well as literal).

And, from the eagle’s view, I found I didn’t have a challenge at all! I had the opportunity to not just integrate, but assimilate the best practices, values, and motivators of all generations into a highly effective workforce. I enabled multi-generational exploration of new ways to use emerging technologies to process data more timely and accurately, and with less repetitive tasks. We encouraged breaking business-process rules that did not have to result in layoffs to the existing workforce (like my first job). Instead, workers were adding value to information, not just processing information.

When I retired, we weren’t just a finance department processing debits and credits. No, we were more than a lean, mean accounting machine. We were multi-generational financial strategists, delivering timely and accurate financial analyses and reports that would keep our city financially resilient long into the future.

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Charlie Francis is a municipal finance expert. He has more than forty years of local government financial management experience in both the public and private sector, including twenty years of experience as a Chief Financial Officer. Most recently, he served as the Director of Administrative Services and Treasurer for the City of Sausalito where he earned the unofficial title of “OpenGov super user”.  He has also served as a finance manager for the Town of Colma, CA, and as CFO and acting City Manager for the Cities of Indian Wells, CA and Tracy, CA.

Questions or comments? Email Charlie at cfrancis@opengov.com.

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Santa Fe Rebuilds Citizen Trust With OpenGov

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Santa Fe pleases residents and tourists alike with bustling farmers’ markets, historic trails, and delightful art galleries. Santa Fe provides residents these benefits alongside a high quality of life. But these successes don’t occur on their own. From ensuring clean water flows through pipes to extinguishing fires, Santa Fe’s government strives to provide citizens with the best possible service.

And this week, Santa Fe’s leaders added a critical service to its operations. A service that builds citizens’ trust in their civic institutions. A service that reinforces Santa Fe’s efforts to be a government of, by, and for the people. A service that connects City Hall to its “just Google it” constituents. This week, Santa Fe launched a comprehensive transparency website that gives citizens unprecedented access to – and understanding of – how Santa Fe spends public money.

OpenGov’s Santana Shorty shows the City of Santa Fe how to use OpenGov.

It’s no secret Santa Fe needed to rebuild some public trust. The city faced a budget deficit of $15 million and was forced to slash services. Officials struggled to explain both the deficit and issues surrounding a $30 million bond program for park improvement. Mayor Javier Gonzales described during a press conference how City Hall grappled with a “public not really knowing what led to the deficit.”

Santa Fe’s leaders could have done nothing. But by refusing to act, the government would have reinforced the apathy and mistrust that cloud too many citizens’ views of their civic institutions. This outcome was unacceptable for Santa Fe’s elected officials and administration.

The city’s leaders believe in the power of technology. They believe that using innovations that transformed industries from healthcare, to commerce, to finance, Santa Fe can rebuild the trust it lost over the next year and give citizens and staff unprecedented insights into financials and performance. And we agree with them. That’s why we are thrilled to partner with the city of Santa Fe.

The city’s transparency portal has all the marks of an effective site. Citizens can explore several years of budget and actual data through interactive charts and visualizations. Since OpenGov understands the city’s financial accounting structure, citizens can pivot across funds and departments with the click of a mouse. Santa Fe also recognizes financial data can be daunting. So the city took full advantage of OpenGov’s Saved Views capabilities that directly answer common questions such as “Where does the money go by department?” and “What are the city’s historical expenses by expense type?”.

The future looks bright for Santa Fe’s government. Transparency alone won’t overcome deficits or restore services, but without public trust, any sustainable solution would be impossible. We are committed to working with Santa Fe as this innovative city expands its use of OpenGov and uses data to make evidence-based decisions on the toughest problems.

Congratulations Santa Fe, and we’re looking forward to what comes next!

Visit Santa Fe’s OpenGov site

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I Came; I Adapted; I Led: Managing Multiple Generations as a Finance Director

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Yes, I’m a baby boomer. In fact, I’m in the first wave of early baby boomers – born in 1949.

A Baby-Boomer in a Traditionalist Workforce

When I first entered the workplace, I was supervised by and worked with what sociologists label as ‘traditionalists.’  My colleagues were stereotypical: they believed work should not be fun. They followed rules, adhered to procedures.  Innovation and creativity were not encouraged, but frowned upon. “Keep your head down, complete the monotonous rhythms of the accounting cycle, show up again tomorrow… “

Fortunately, my boss Alan was different. He was mostly happy! Yes, he held us accountable for timeliness and accuracy. Yet he did so by being a bright spot in our day. He showed up to work with a positive attitude, left the personal and heavy stuff at home, and came to work ready to brighten his staff’s days.

One day he took a leap of faith and bought me the first Texas Instrument calculator that held a number in memory. The next month, I allocated indirect costs across 30+ funds in three hours, previously a three-day task. My reward? He told me to take the next 2 ½ days off! Soon, he encouraged me to show colleagues how to use the calculator so they could modernize their day-to-day accounting procedures. A couple of years later, operations were so streamlined that Alan had to let me go – productivity improvements from emerging technologies didn’t justify having such a large staff – I had the least seniority….

In retrospect, Alan was an inspirational mentor-manager. He primarily managed other traditionalists. He motivated them with respect. They had job security. But he was also a bi-generational mentor and integrator. He recognized I was motivated by being valued and needed. He knew money also motivated me; he double promoted me through my agency’s five-step pay system. He integrated me into the traditionalist workforce by capitalizing on my technological strengths and teaching me to respect my older team members’ values. The result – although I was the workgroup’s most productive member, I was also the low man on the totem pole. A baby-boomer stuck in a traditionalist culture, I accepted being laid off as the needed “kicking out of the nest” to become the finance manager and institutional leader that I was destined to be.

Baby-Boomer Management

Soon  I was leading my own finance department; and the workforce (city manager, department heads, staff) was predominantly fellow baby-boomers, making it easy to manage heterogeneously motivated staff. Our careers defined who we were; our work was important to us.

I managed my team as I would have wanted to be managed! I set clear and concise job expectations and let my staff know their ideas mattered. They expected to be valued and managed to their expectations. I showed them they were appreciated because they “paid their dues” under the hierarchical rules. I pre-assessed comfort level with technology before assigning new projects. I held staff accountable by following-up, checking-in, and asking how they were doing on a regular basis, but NEVER micro-managed.

Silly routines frustrated me. So, I looked for shortcuts, technological improvements, and efficiencies. That gave me, and my staff, enough time to work as a team to prepare a CAFR that met the GFOA criteria for the Certificate of Compliance for Financial Reporting award. We celebrated this victory as a group effort!

I was enjoying being a baby-boomer manager in a baby-boomer generation!

Then came Generation X

The workforce was gradually transitioning to new dynamic young leaders who wanted jobs in forward-thinking organizations that offered flexibility in scheduling, and where input was evaluated on merit, not age/seniority. For baby-boomers, work was primarily a career – a place where one worked then retired. Generation X’ers were motivated by freedom and removal of rules, and instead of money, they wanted time-off.  

This was hardly the profile of most local governments in the 1990’s, as they were populated mostly by baby-boomer citizens and baby-boomer workers. Once thrown out of the comfort-nest, it was necessary to grow my wing feathers and learn to fly. I reached back to Alan’s bi-generational management and mentoring lessons. I recognized the assets and liabilities of each generation; and used one generation’s strengths to offset the other’s liabilities through awareness, team meetings, and one-on-one mentoring.

The more casual work environment, while ensuring office coverage during essential hours, encouraged team creativity. We allowed flexibility and relinquished control as long as expectations and deadlines were met. Quality control was a group effort. The bi-generational workforce took responsibility for full process completion.  

It wasn’t always comfortable working across and integrating two generations, but the cities I managed thrived and not only earned GFOA awards; that gained nationwide recognition for cutting-edge financial management strategies and tactics.

Next week, you’ll see the management lessons I learned working with millennials!

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Charlie Francis is a municipal finance expert. He has more than forty years of local government financial management experience in both the public and private sector, including twenty years of experience as a Chief Financial Officer. Most recently, he served as the Director of Administrative Services and Treasurer for the City of Sausalito where he earned the unofficial title of “OpenGov super user”.  He has also served as a finance manager for the Town of Colma, CA, and as CFO and acting City Manager for the Cities of Indian Wells, CA and Tracy, CA.

Questions or comments? Email Charlie at cfrancis@opengov.com.

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How I Kept my City Afloat With Fiscal Health Indicators

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Photo Credit: John Wollwerth

Click here to see a list of all editions of the Finance Officer’s Desk column.

I first became intrigued with fiscal health indicators in 1981, the second year of my first finance director’s job. My Florida barrier island city had a stable management team and offered efficient services. There were few vacant parcels, so high-value homes were replacing fishing shacks built in the 40s and 50s, and commercial economic activity provided resources that kept property taxes the lowest in the county. Residents were happy. It was a decade to sit back and enjoy life.

But not for me!

I knew the City’s financial condition depended on its continuing ability to balance demands for service with available financial resources. I needed to find a way to monitor the city’s financial condition so we could identify emerging financial problems to develop solutions in a timely manner. So, when I learned about the International City/County Management Association’s (ICMA) Financial Trend Monitoring System (FTMS) – first published in 1980 – I purchased the guidebooks and gathered the multi-year data.  (The FTMS was subsequently revised into the book: Evaluating financial condition: a Handbook for Local Government.)

If it weren’t for another significant event – IBM introducing its first desktop computer on August 12, 1981 – I would not have been able to organize the multi-year data needed to calculate the distinctive ratios included in the FTMS. These ratios are then organized to visualize multi-year trends in operating position, revenues, expenditures, debt and capital, and service levels. The ratios are compared to population, inflation, other similar entities, or benchmarks. Many of the indicators are adjusted for inflation and population to control for growth in these areas.  Imagine trying to do all of this without a computer!

The first IBM computer was essential for building fiscal health indicators.

I decided to use 10 years of data. I created a report based on the FTMS template. The format for analysis of each indicator was as follows:

  1. Graphical presentation of the indicator’s trend
  2. Formula for computing and interpreting the indicator
  3. Analysis of the 10-year trend
  4. Fiscal and operational strategies which may recommend policy development, revenue reform, or productivity improvements.

The trend analysis helped me to answer several questions:

  • How fast is an indicator changing and in which direction?
  • How does one trend compare to another and is there a correlation?
  • How do these trends compare to local or regional trends?
  • How can the results be used effectively for planning, budgeting, and policy-making?

Armed with this information, I was able to provide the high-level financial policy advice that kept our barrier island above water throughout the 1980s.

Based on my experience, here are seven tips for you in preparing Fiscal Health Indicators for your city.

  1. Use audited financial information whenever possible – It’s important that reliable, accurate financial information that reflects the city’s true costs, revenues, and financial position be used in calculating health indicator ratios. Non-financial indicators from the statistical section of the CAFR should also be used whenever possible, so the report’s users only go to one source for validating your analysis.
  2. Use the same formulas from period to period – For the results to be meaningful, consistently apply the methodology. This is critical to avoid skewing the analysis. If changes in formulas are necessary, then retroactive ratios and trends should be re-calculated to present a constant picture to users of the indicators.
  3. Develop internal benchmarks – Clearly define your indicators and understand the benchmark goals you want to sustain and/or achieve. This will assist in developing strategies, policies, and tactics for your city to remain fiscally healthy.
  4. Identify comparator agencies – Use comparator agency information to validate your internal benchmarks. Comparisons with other agencies are not easy. They are time-consuming — users must determine other agencies to compare with, compile the data, standardize it, and attempt to interpret the information. This may require significant manual effort to normalize data across different Charts of Accounts for “apples to apples” comparisons. To make this easier, consider exploring OpenGov Comparisons, which uses the OpenGov Network™ to rapidly empower governments with new insights that improve city services and lead to efficient use of public money.
  5. Visualize ratios and trends – Advanced data visualization tools can be used to present data in visually compelling ways that enhance and expand business intelligence. Use visualizations as a tool for facilitation; leading managers, elected officials, and citizens to interact and understand the city’s fiscal health, and the financial policies necessary to sustain fiscal resiliency. See the fiscal health indicators from the City of Sausalito’s OpenGov site.
  6. Document, index, and cross-reference data – Be totally transparent with where the data is coming from, the mechanics of every formula, and the cross-references to all data sources to enhance the credibility and validity of your fiscal health indicators.
  7. Formally communicate results – Click the following links to see how several entities have prepared formal documents that effectively communicates the results of the efforts of implementing and monitoring fiscal health indicators.

Today there are other methodologies for measuring and monitoring fiscal health. Two primary sources are Kenneth Brown’s 10-point test and Michael Coleman’s California Municipal Financial Health Diagnostic. The fiscal health indicators I use now are customized to the city I am managing. I use custom scorecards that incorporate the best practices from the above-referenced templates. I have separate fiscal health indicators for governmental funds and enterprise funds. The fiscal health indicators form the basis for comprehensive narratives that draw conclusions from the indicators and recommend sound financial strategies to policymakers.

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Charlie Francis is a municipal finance expert. He has more than forty years of local government financial management experience in both the public and private sector, including twenty years of experience as a Chief Financial Officer. Most recently, he served as the Director of Administrative Services and Treasurer for the City of Sausalito where he earned the unofficial title of “OpenGov super user”.  He has also served as a finance manager for the Town of Colma, CA, and as CFO and acting City Manager for the Cities of Indian Wells, CA and Tracy, CA.

Questions or comments? Email Charlie at cfrancis@opengov.com.

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3 Things I’ve Learned as a Millennial Finance Director

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Andrew McCreery is the Finance Director for Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He is also a millennial.

I’ll eat at least 30 slices of cake over the next five years. That’s one for every retirement party Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania’s municipal office will hold as about a quarter of our staff retires. Last year, within 8 months, our Manager, Public Works Director, and Police Chief left the municipality. We’ll be able to make some internal hires, but with 30 people leaving, we have no choice: we must recruit the next generation of public servants.

Mt. Lebanon isn’t alone. GFOA reports that 37% of local government employees are over 50. As more baby boomers clean their desks and say goodbye, governments won’t be able to analyze transactions or patrol streets unless they attract and retain millennials. Millennials. Stereotypes about them abound – they’re lazy, entitled, idealistic. But these stereotypes are broad overgeneralizations; and if your government adopts the right strategy, you can hire millennial workers that meaningfully contribute to the community.

Governments have a long way to go. GFOA found that just 12% of local government employees are under the age of 30. To get more millennials, and it’s especially important to fill the bench in finance departments, agencies need to understand what millennials look for in government work.

I’m a millennial Finance Director, and here are three things I think you should know about getting my generation’s top talent into government.

1. We value data sharing

Siloed our personal lives are not. We message friends across the country in seconds, collaborate like never before, and even spark revolutions over social media. So during the job search, when we find governments that trap data in legacy systems and don’t adequately share information across departments or with citizens, we likely apply elsewhere for work.

I’m working on making Mt. Lebanon’s finance shop a great place to work for millennials and every other generation. I’ve emphasized expanding openness and sharing data because employees across the organization need cross-departmental information. A quid pro quo data sharing environment has created collaborative and expanded solutions to many problems.

We’re putting the tools in place to ensure anyone who needs financial data can access it on their own. If employees have the insights they need to inform their work regardless of which department has the data, then they can do their jobs better. Millennials recognize this, and expect this cross-functional collaboration in the workplace.

2. We prefer speed and efficiency

Imagine how millennials feel about having to wait hours, or even days, to get the financial answers they need to do their job when they can go home and find a stock price in seconds. For most governments, this is a reality.

It’s cumbersome to create and update one-off reports for every department head in our financial system. So when someone has a financial question, whether it’s on spending on travel expenses across funds or how our expenditures compare to our budget, there’s going to be a delay.

Governments should operate like Google Search, when possible. Ask a question – get an instant answer. Executives need current overtime information across departments. Police Chiefs depend on updated crime statistics. Public Works must track construction costs. And this information often cannot wait.

To make our government more ‘millennial-friendly’, we used OpenGov give managers on-demand access to financial information so they no longer have to rely on the finance team for answers to routine questions.

3. We’re working toward the same goals as other generations

The first two lessons emphasized things governments should do differently to attract millennials. But it’s important to remember that we’re in government for the same reason you are: to serve citizens. As a millennial managing older generations, I try to keep this in mind. Our management style may be different, but we want the same thing. Communicating this to all generations is critical to our success.

Like all communities, we face challenges like revenue constraints, expanding expenditure demands, and infrastructure maintenance. And like every other generation, millennials must strategize how to serve citizens. I believe that millennials have a lot to offer the public sector, and I hope that local governments across the country do what is necessary to attract this workforce.

Want to learn more? Read the free Administrator’s Primer on Enabling Millennials in Government!

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Andrew McCreery is the Director of Finance for Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a position he has held for over two years. Prior to Mt. Lebanon, Andrew worked for the Borough of Jefferson Hills and the Township of Upper St. Clair. Andrew received a Certificate of Accounting from the University of Pittsburgh and a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from the University of Pennsylvania.  

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A Finance Director and Data Scientist Talk Forecasting

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Photo Credit: Lynne Albright/SHUTTERSTOCK

July 19, 2016

Over the last four weeks, we have looked at external and internal factors affecting financial forecasting and its professional practitioners (finance directors, budget managers, and analysts). We looked at developing the formal annual forecast and surveyed some of the relevant literature.

Today we conclude the series with a conversation with Dr. Gabor Melli, Director of Data Science for OpenGov, Inc. Gabor’s background includes 20 years of experience, numerous publications, and success in many diverse assignments. We explore how new data science techniques can enhance financial forecasting for governments.

FO: Welcome Dr. Melli. It is a pleasure to speak with you today. Let’s jump right in. What does “data science” mean?

GM: Data science is about applying basic scientific principles to data-rich environments. We typically use data to develop and test hypotheses in the form of predictive models that react to changes in the various provided inputs.

Modern technology helps us collect and analyze increasingly larger datasets. When applied to government finance, data science can gain new insights into trends, such as expenses and revenues, along with non-financial metrics.

FO: What early wins for governments do you see coming through data science?

GM: I think data science can help governments make better decisions by equipping leaders with actionable insights. For example, at OpenGov, we’re preparing our first generation of “projections”. This product examines historical trends to generate full year-end estimates at any point in the current year.

Finance and budget teams will be able to use these projected estimates to more quickly identify unexpected variances and to begin each year’s budget work. This work benefits from good estimates for the rest of the current year because they are part of the base to begin next year’s work.

Projections will also help department heads, project and grant managers, and other analysts with full-year forecasts for planning future work and funding needs.

FO: What are some of the major hurdles and roadblocks in this work?

GM: Like most data science initiatives, the main starting challenge of projections was to prepare the data to efficiently perform the task at hand. As I am sure your readers well know, governments can associate transactions to thousands of interrelated accounts for different departments, funds and object codes. Each time that new data is received or old data is changed, we need to effectively perform the predictive process.

The next, also typical, challenge was to define a measure of “accuracy” between each predicted value and what it actually turned out to be. Many of your readers will probably have encountered relevant concepts such as “mean squared error” and “absolute relative error”. I’ve been surprised how little prior discussion there has been about these critical predictive modeling concepts in the area of government financial analysis.

FO: Important aspects of forecasting include communication and education for many types of stakeholders, as well as providing operational insights to management for early corrective action. In light of this critical socialization need, how hard will it be to keep predictions transparent and credible?

GM: We understand that forecasts must be believable and credible so our customers can use them with confidence. This requires that the forecasting processes, its assumptions, and the actual algorithms used must be transparent to all stakeholders who reference the predictions. We think that this is possible by providing users with incremental gradations of model complexity. Users are able to select their own preferred method and introduce more and more automation to their selections.

FO: To follow up on forecasting practices, how do you react to the thought that credibility may actually be more important than accuracy?

GM: That goes to a bigger issue: a single predicted quantity is a very rough insight. For important decisions, a decision maker should also require a confidence score (for example low, medium, or high) whether it comes from some seasoned expert or from a trained predictive model.

Even better would be the availability of confidence bounds that suggest the highest or lowest value for a forecast with, say, 95 percent confidence. Forecasting algorithms are more suited to delivering this range of outputs, increasing the entire process’s credibility.

FO:  How do processes for current-full year projections and next-year budget forecasts differ from what is involved in longer term forecasts, such as five and 30-year forecasts?

GM: We understand that most governments do five-year forecasts, and many need longer term (10-20-30 years) for strategic planning and or debt issues. Simple trend analysis may be adequate for short-term work in government where rapid short-cycle changes are not the norm.

But for longer horizons, this extrapolation of historical trends is less satisfactory. We have to better understand and model recurring vs nonrecurring activity, how fund balances can support forecasting alternatives, and the effects of national and regional economic trends.

This gets at the heart of the data science effort. We will use OpenGov’s large and growing governmental database, together with our unique aggregation of public data from many sources, to develop forecasting models and test them empirically across the data to find repeatable, reliable models.

FO: A recent article in Government Finance Review discussed three techniques: Expert judgment and analysis, deterministic forecasting, and econometric modeling. It sounds like you are hoping to help governments to rely less on the first two techniques, and move more towards the econometric model?

GM: Yes, exactly. That article gave a good overview of the current situation and pointed to some of the risks involved in the work. We believe that we will be able to help forecasters with modern technology and data science approaches. Many private sector organizations are benefitting from these techniques, and we think governments can too.

FO: Thank you for your time, and for the work your team is engaged in. We will stay in touch and look forward to hearing more from you over the next few years.

This concludes our Finance Officer’s Desk series on government forecasting. We hope you found this information useful and thought-provoking. As always, we welcome your comments, suggestions or other feedback. If you have experiences or stories you would like to share, we invite you to discuss possibly making a contribution to this space.

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Mike McCann moved into government service in Ukiah, then Monterey CA, after beginning his career in corporate (ADP, Wells Fargo Bank, Blue Shield of CA), not-for-profit (Blue Shield of Ca, Mendocino Private Industry Council), and start-up accounting. For the last 20 years, Mike has been hands-on with budget, financial reporting and accounting operations, including City budgets and CAFRs. He holds a B.S.  in Accounting from SJSU and M.S. in Instructional Technology from  CSUMB.

Contact Mike with questions or comments at mmccann@opengov.com.

central-park

6 Ways to Take Your Transparency Portal to the Next Level

By | OpenGov Expert's Corner | No Comments

We’ve discussed the obvious and hidden benefits of financial transparency in prior posts, and if you are ready to start getting more from your OpenGov transparency site, then these six tips are what you need to get going.

1. Curate a list of the important views for your citizens

Data can be overwhelming, and citizens learn best when information is presented as stories with context. To connect citizens with the insights they need, build a set of “Saved Views” you feel are important for your organization.  

For example, the City of Alpharetta presents compelling saved views to citizens:

2. Create reports for “hot topics”

Finances are at the nucleus of government, but there are always hot topics that come up during council meetings. These can range from results of satisfaction surveys to issued dog licenses!  Keep this data online so everyone stays updated.  

For example, the City of Santa Clarita reports results on citizen satisfaction with employees:

3. Personalize your site

Add your city logo, a report description and attach supporting documentation (like your budget book or strategic plan). This helps make the site more relatable to citizens.

4. Annotate important transactions

Some transactions will inevitably catch the public eye. By adding notes to important transactions, you can proactively answer questions before they come in.  

5. Keep your site updated

There is nothing worse for citizens than going to an outdated transparency site. Update your data at least once a month to ensure citizens can gain the information they need – and reaffirm your government’s commitment to transparency.

6. Promote on social media

Draw attention to your OpenGov site by promoting on social media and your homepage! Your citizens spend hours on social media, and by meeting them on Facebook, Twitter, and your government’s homepage, you can give them more opportunities to learn about their governments.

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Tom is a Product Manager at OpenGov.  Before joining OpenGov, Tom worked at JPMorgan Chase as a Developer and Data Analyst.  Tom enjoys eating at McDonalds and wearing fluorescent pants.
 
CSA-Team

Make Your Mark: Data Strategists for Government

By | Life at OpenGov | No Comments

Ready to learn about OpenGov’s Customer Success team? Read on to see how Customer Success Analysts serve on the frontlines modernizing government technology.

  • Municipal governments in Ohio use data published on OpenGov to compare vendor prices across jurisdictions and ensure they receive fair prices.
  • Allegheny County, Pennsylvania gives managers current insights using OpenGov to inform planning with relevant information. For example, the county is using payroll data loaded in OpenGov to assess gender pay equity.
  • Eau Claire, Wisconsin increases Council and public buy-in into its capital improvement plan to address urgent infrastructure challenges.

These benefits are not unique; over a thousand governments inform strategic planning, manage operations, and foster public trust with OpenGov. Many of our customers had software that trapped insights in departments and blocked everyone but trained analysts from gaining the insights they needed. Now, they’re informing decisions with comprehensive intelligence.

All of our teams help governments make this leap into the digital age, but it’s Customer Success that serves on the frontlines every day – strategizing with governments to meet their needs and ensuring they are quickly and properly set up on OpenGov. In this post, you’ll learn about one of team’s two main roles: the Customer Success Analyst.

Customer Success Analyst (CSA) 101

CSAs work with new customers to map their financial data to OpenGov. This work is mission-critical for the company and for customers because a proper mapping ensures governments can explore data as needed to learn from it.

But it’s a mistake to assume CSAs just crunch numbers – the role also involves strategic thinking and relationship management; helping customers think through their OpenGov objectives and implementation determines their future success on the platform.

CSAs are passionate about empowering governments. Alysa Zyda spent years working in government and shares how she’s motivated by “wanting to bring the best tools to my former coworkers. By working here, I can build the tools that I always wished I had.”

Diversity breeds success

CSAs come from a broad range of backgrounds. Some, such as Alysa, have previous government experience, while others come from the private sector, like Christine Liu who was a Project Analyst for an Infrastructure Engineering Design Firm.

Diverse experiences position the team for success – CSA Henry Tsao explains how “people with different backgrounds can help each other remove the tunnel vision we get from our own backgrounds.”

But there’s at least one area with near-uniformity…

Nearly 75% of CSAs prefer Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups over chocolate kisses, licorice, and gummy bears. Maybe this is why CSA Becca Rosengarten considers “everyone on the team a good friend of mine.”

A day as a CSA

Becca explains how, every day, “I get to spend a lot of time with our customers, helping them through their deployment and making sure that they get the most value out of OpenGov. I also spend a ton of time getting creative in Excel, and I love it!”

Henry adds, “Being a Customer Success Analyst involves analyzing the best way to design processes for the customer to make them successful using OpenGov. This includes: systematically analyzing their financial data, identifying their pain-points, and creatively thinking of strategies to alleviate those pain points.”

CSA Becca Rosengarten helps a customer implement OpenGov.

Data drives success

Henry explains how data is critical to a CSA’s success:

“We have to build credibility with our customers with our knowledge of their data. If we don’t have a solid understanding, the client will notice immediately and be that much less willing to work with us.

OpenGov empowers governments to visualize and analyze historical trends just by loading data into the platform. Therefore, it’s important for us to make sure the customer’s data is properly formatted and inputted into the platform.”

A role of constant learning

Because OpenGov is a rapidly-growing startup, our CSAs explore product development, marketing, sales, and more – broadening their knowledge every day.

Interested in learning more? Contact our talent team at jobs@opengov.com and follow us on LinkedIn!

Mike McCann - VP of Government Finance Solutions

Before joining OpenGov, Mike served as the Finance Director of Ukiah, California, and the Assistant Finance Director of Monterey, California, where he was responsible for Budget, CAFR and operational reporting. Previously, he held CFO positions at a Silicon Valley start-up and a non-profit organization that provided federal- and state-funded job-training services. Mike has also held positions with Blue Shield of California, Wells Fargo and ADP. He holds an MS in Instructional Science and Technology from California State University Monterey Bay and a BS in Accounting from San Jose State University. He served with the U.S. Army Security Agency in Vietnam and Japan.

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