Polishing Your Reports: Crafting professional and engaging reports
July 7, 2016 – Mike McCann
Does your finance team need to prepare professional looking reports for your executives, legislators and the public? Do you need reports you can add to budget books, staff reports, and other important communications? Do you want everyone to save time and use fresh data? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then OpenGov can help.
Setting up OpenGov reports for the government’s financial and other important data takes just a few moments. You and your Customer Success Analyst did the initial work during the implementation process.
With a just a little more attention, you can polish and focus your reports so they become more effective tools to increase financial understanding, socialize a realistic understanding of the budget, and develop consensus on important civic issues. Your reports can be ready to use on the big screen in front during meetings and included in any reporting process. Better reports can support both your internal management and external audit functions.
So where do we begin? Let’s take the basic need to give every executive, department head, and project leader monthly updates tracking their expenses against the budget. Of course, you also need to include this information in your formal Council/Board reporting at least once a quarter. You have had a monthly report, designed for just this purpose, on your site ever since you started using OpenGov Intelligence; now we will refine the message it delivers to your important audiences:
Today we will turn this basic working report (above) into a more polished, professional, and interesting piece of communication (below):
A step-by-step process unlocks powerful tools built into each report
Settings controls let you design the entry point for each report
We start with a basic monthly-template report and produce a final result we can be proud of. First, we will use the settings at the lower left on the report screen to update many of the report’s design features. Selecting Settings opens a Settings panel with several control options:
In the General options, the first item on the Settings panel, we can make our first changes:
1. A better report name and description will help set the user’s expectations of what they will be able to learn.
- Change the report name to something brief and meaningful, enticing the user to investigate.
- Add a longer description to orient the user when she opens the report, and be sure to make the description visible with the slide control.
Saving these changes makes them available immediately to all users.
2. The column labels along the bottom of the report looked good overall, but the default column label on the righthand column was not clear, so to fix it, you can move down the Settings panel to the X-axis configuration controls. In that control, move down the column labels and enter a better description on the last line:
The X-axis configuration control is very powerful. You can dramatically change a report’s appearance and add valuable information.
- The first line overrides the default X-axis label
- The detail lines correspond to each data set in the report for two functions:
- Lines can be sorted in any order using the up and down arrows, re-ordering their placement on the report. (Try it!)
- Lines can be relabeled, in this case from “GL 2016” to “2015-16 Adopted Budget”.
Like all Settings panel changes, click Save and everything is updated immediately.
With a more meaningful report name and properly labeled data, you can move on to update the report’s default appearance – what users will see when they open the report. Select the “Set default state” just below the “settings” control we worked with earlier.
Now, with the “configuring the report… “ control active, you will be able to update several powerful settings on the report, and save those changes for all your users.
3. SHOW (at the upper left) is key to your report’s look. For your expense vs. budget, you choose Expenses for the default display. (For other reports you might use Revenues or Both; it all depends on the story you need to tell.)
You notice that the default view lists expense types in the legend on the right. The default is to show the break out by expense type, but for your purposes, you want to help department heads and others find their part of the report quickly, so change the break out to Departments:
4. “BROKEN DOWN BY” can be set to any element in the government’s chart of accounts, typically funds, departments, and objects. (In fact, projects, activities, or any other intelligence found in the chart can be used as the starting point.) You use Departments here:
5. Graphs communicate intuitively by replacing columns of numbers with visuals that can be quickly understood with less conscious analysis. The default graph is a “stacked graph” that many find useful. At the upper left, you can see several graphs which may be useful for different purposes. You select a familiar bar graph style for this report:
6. The order of items in the legend and column also affects how the data is understood. The report default is Large-to-Small which works well in many situations. You choose to use the Chart of Accounts order since your chart is designed to report how you do all your operating reports, and is the order your users are accustomed to seeing data in.
7. Prorating the budget for variance analysis on reports is a useful tool to help visually align the data in reports for easier evaluation.
By default, proration is enabled. This spreads the budget evenly over the year, showing an approximation of the total to better match cumulative year-to-date revenues and expenses at any point in the year.
With the Budget Proration slide turned off, the full budget is always shown in the report. This is more accurate for the full year but leaves it to the user to evaluate their mid-year results against the full-year budget.
There is no perfect solution to visually representing amounts for differing periods on the same report, so having options allows the user to make the best choice for any given reporting situation.
8. Account numbers and titles can be displayed on internal reports, a very useful tool for accountants, analysts and auditors. (Note that they will only be visible when the user drills down to the detail level in the legend.) You turn this feature on to help your analysts dig into variances and do their own research.
Once you have all the defaults setup just the way you want them, clicking on the Save button at the lower right corner of the report makes these updates part of the default all users see when opening this report. And of course, it is just as easy to go back and try other looks at any time.
Two more easy refinements are made elsewhere on the platform and they affect all reports.
9. The highest summary level titles on your Chart of Accounts are worth extra attention. Your updated report budget variance report already looks much better, but this top summary level on legend could still use a little attention.
This is too big a subject to explore in detail today, but there are three kinds of “polish” that can be applied to the highest levels of the chart of accounts at any time since these are the levels first encountered by your report users.
- Reports display eight titles by default, with expansion buttons for longer lists of titles. This works fine, but where possible it is cleaner to summarize the data into eight titles so it is all visible on report entry.
- Misspellings, acronyms, and insider lingo make understanding reports harder for many users.
- The chart of accounts order may be rearranged for the most meaningful views. For instance, Benefits normally follows directly under Wages in reporting.
10. The Edit Reporting Preferences button allows you to present variances in the way you normally do for your users; Budget minus Actual, or vice versa. This is done In the Settings tab of the control panel (Not in Reports), so this control may make all your variance reports easier to interpret.
Save your preference, and it will be used automatically in all reports.
So, that’s it for today. You can discover the full value built into OpenGov’s powerful and flexible reporting tools by experimenting with the controls and seeing what works best for your peers and users.
Category: Product Advice