Budget Manager Jennifer Tell joined the City of Alameda, CA, at an important moment. What may have seemed like a challenging time to start a new role: The City was in the middle of its biennial budget cycle, it was the beginning of the pandemic, and staff were in the midst of implementing a new ERP. Then, the Finance Director, to whom she reported, left.
Rather than taking a wait-and-see approach, Tell used this time of transition to overhaul the City’s manual, Excel-based budgeting process. “One thing that was clear was that nobody was happy with the budget process,” Tell described. “It was a lot of work for departments to put together their requests on the worksheets, and the Excel workbook was so large, it became a real risk,” she added.
Tell partnered with the City Manager, the interim Finance Director, and (importantly) the IT Director to find a new budget solution to implement before the next budget cycle. “IT is in a position to see where the City can be using online tools and other digital tools to improve efficiency,” she explained. The IT Director recommended OpenGov Budgeting & Planning to replace the Excel process. It was a match everyone agreed upon.
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Transforming the Budget Process
Prior to OpenGov, Tell described the City’s budgeting process as “extremely rushed” while being “impossible” to find the details she needed to understand the budget as a big picture. As a team of one, Tell spent hours alone “hobbling along,” as she described it, with an Excel workbook, attempting to derive meaning from hundreds of funds.
Meanwhile, frustrated departments bombarded Tell with questions about why certain elements were so expensive. But without salary and fixed cost information for departments readily available, Tell lacked the supporting documentation necessary to justify costs. This “black box” process was eroding trust with departments since they couldn’t provide visibility into the budget numbers.
Transitioning to a collaborative budgeting process has changed all that. Today, the budget is built entirely in a digital chart of accounts, where the Finance team showed how OpenGov Budgeting & Planning would result in labor savings, even when factoring in learning a new system. Plus, every piece of the budget, including documentation and reporting, is in one place for all to see. Data automatically refreshes every day so teams across departments can track their progress.
This more streamlined budgeting process strengthened the Finance department’s relationship with other departments across the City, says Tell: “Departments are now proactively reaching out. They see [the Finance Department] as a source of consulting.”
Transparency for Internal Decision Making
With greater insight into the budget as a whole came increased trust between Finance and other City departments. That trust has spread to the City Council and the community.
Tell has noticed increased engagement with Council members during and outside meetings. With everything at her fingertips, she can tackle questions efficiently, even during the Council’s virtual meetings.
“I have found it really useful if, in the middle of a meeting, the Council has a question, I can immediately go to a chart, share my screen, or talk through the numbers. When we have those immediate answers, it helps our credibility with the Council,” said Tell.
The same is true for community members and groups especially interested in the budget. Tell has met with community members to show them how to drill into financial information on their own when they have questions.
“It does help with that trust and understanding with our community,” she said. “It is one of our big challenges in government these days. Public trust is seemingly at all-time lows, so when we can effectively communicate why things are in the budget [and] where they are, it really helps to bolster that trust in the process.”
Online Budget Book – A New Source of Pride
One of the things Tell is most proud of is going from a hard-to-read and difficult-to-understand PDF budget to an online budget book with data download capabilities.
“Any user, whether it’s a Council member, a member of the public, or staff in departments, can go into the budget data and answer their own questions,” she said.
The budget book provides easy-to-find answers or, at the very least, gives people the ability to analyze the data to get questions answered, something nearly impossible with a static budget book. While increasing engagement, the City also saved thousands in printing costs.
“At least the other data wonks like myself can go in and find information and slice and dice the data,” she said.
The GFOA awarded the City a Distinguished Budget Presentation Award in 2021. Tell admits she wasn’t planning to go for the award after implementing a new ERP and OpenGov, but the Finance Director encouraged her to submit for the recognition. The time savings and ease of use in developing the online budget book made it easier to make updates and add the elements that meet GFOA criteria. “Being able to pull together all the pieces easily – from department narratives to key budget data – made it easier to create the book and meet the requirements,” she said.
Bringing it All Together
As she looks back on the process of choosing and implementing OpenGov Budgeting & Planning, Tell can point to specific key learnings:
- Transitioning to a collaborative budget process is a critical first step toward more strategic budgeting and planning.
- Making data accessible and building the capacity to self-serve and inform critical decisions enables departments, Council, and community organizations to be better budget partners.
- Online budget book attributes earn GFOA distinction and increase stakeholder engagement and trust.
“My advice [to municipalities with a paper-based budget] would be to take the leap and see what happens,” she said. “You can still PDF it. You can make those copies as needed. For Alameda, no one really missed the paper. Paper was static and didn’t have the granularity departments were looking for. It wasn’t meeting the information needs of my department stakeholders, and in terms of what the public was looking for, they also appreciate the granularity you can get to in that budget book.”
What’s Next for Alameda
Now that a new budget process is in place and the ERP implementation is stabilizing, Tell’s team, which now includes a budget analyst, has time to dig into the data. She also plans to move toward an even more collaborative budgeting process. Whereas it is natural for budget stakeholders to look inward at their department, she hopes to facilitate a process where stakeholders see themselves as one City-wide team.
As the City enters the next biennial budget cycle, Tell is delighted to know OpenGov’s solution will help departments build a better budget. Before, budget managers were frustrated over the process. Now, they call Tell to help anticipate possible issues and strategize before submitting a budget proposal.
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