How Harford County, Maryland is Improving its Award-Winning Budget Book

August 18, 2017 – OpenGov

Harford County, Maryland is located in the northeastern corner of the state, at the top of the Chesapeake Bay. With an $818 million budget, the County government serves 245,000 residents who span a diverse geography comprised of industrial and rural areas.

Senior Budget Analyst Christen Sullivan has significant responsibility around developing the County’s budget book, which is not only an award-winning document, but also serves multiple functions simultaneously. She works to ensure it effectively serves distinct stakeholder groups in meaningful ways.

The County's Most Important Document

Sullivan views Harford County’s budget book as the most important document the County produces. She says it serves three important groups in distinct ways:

  1. Citizens. The budget book communicates information to citizens in a way that effectively conveys where their tax dollars are going and how the County’s decision-makers have allocated public resources.
  2. Management. The budget is a financial, policy, and operational communications device that serves as a benchmark of leadership’s success. An award-winning document promotes confidence in elected officials and staff, and recognition is useful when communicating the town’s fiscal narrative to the press and outside entities such as bond rating agencies.
  3. Budget Office. The budget office itself benefits from a purposeful process focused on continuous improvement. Applying for awards such as the GFOA Distinguished Budget Presentation Award Program pushes the finance department to utilize technology and evolving best practices to make the budget book the best it can be.

Improving the Budget Process and Document with OpenGov

Harford’s budget has been awarded the GFOA’s Distinguished Budget Award for 28 years. During those years, the process has improved, becoming more streamlined and, therefore, more useful to internal and external audiences. Sullivan says that in previous years past, the budget process required “merging thousands of Excel spreadsheets into PDFs.” However, since Harford has adopted OpenGov Budget Book™ powered by Wdesk, the process has become more efficient and collaborative.

“OpenGov’s Budget Book is very powerful,” she says. “It is advancing us not only in technology, but also in efficiency by providing incredible options for linking to datasets and creating charts and visualizations right in the budget documents.”

Creating an organized, visually-appealing, and useful document is part of the County’s approach to easily streamlining the overall budgeting process. Active hyperlinks, a logical index, and widespread use of charts makes the budget document into a useful narrative on the community as a whole. It succeeds because it reflects strategic priorities and citizen-level outcomes.

As another tactic for making the budget more digestible for the public, Harford County’s staff also produces a “Budget in Brief,” a stand-alone summary of the most useful information. It is full of visuals, which offers meaningful context. “Readers love visuals that provide context,” Sullivan says. “Visuals such as pie charts or bar graphs that provide quick breakdowns of revenues and expenditures help people understand the content and want to keep reading.”

In line with the team’s emphasis on constant improvement, OpenGov Budget Book powered by Wdesk is offering Harford County the opportunity to improve upon what is already an award-winning budget document. They are not only using the software to develop a final document that is even better-looking and more functional, but are also using it to streamline the publishing process itself. Sullivan says the technology is improving internal collaboration with its centralized, cloud-based editing environment that makes the document accessible to team members simultaneously – anywhere and anytime. “We can all work in the same document at the same time, which is incredible,” she says.

Learn More

For more information on how Harford County’s budget team is leveraging best practices and technology to deliver award-winning budget documents and achieve greater efficiency, watch the webinar “What Makes a GFOA Award-winning Budget?” now.