A clear eye for the Far North

A clear eye for the Far North

The Far North District Council struggled with getting an accurate picture of its finances due to an inflexible legacy environment. Here is how it managed the move to a new system, which comes with ‘warning lights’ for missed targets and upcoming obstacles.

The Far North District Council has a more refined grasp on where it’s going, now that decision makers are able to visually monitor business goals and outcomes using a financial dashboard linked to its core systems. Rather than trying to make sense of pages of numbers, managers responsible for projects across the widely diverse region have an instant graphical overview of the state of play — including ‘warning lights’ if targets are missed or for upcoming obstacles.

A thorough inventory of future requirements saw the council transition from a cumbersome, inflexible legacy system that limited the way it could operate, to the modular TechnologyOne financial management system just under three years ago.

Finance manager Janice Smith arrived at the FNDC in April 2005 three months before the new system went live. She was prepared for the worst, having lived through changes in large hierarchical systems in her role with local authorities in the UK.

And it wasn’t the swap over to a new system that made her cautious. The Far North District Council, with its 250 employees, is responsible for a huge, sparsely-populated region with the longest coastline and the second longest roading network of any New Zealand council. However, Smith needn’t have worried. “It’s the best system I’ve ever worked with. It’s really flexible, you can get information out and make changes quickly.”

In August 2007, FNDC upgraded the system from version 10.2 to the new Ci version 11.3. This challenge typically set warning bells ringing, but the shift was achieved seamlessly. To get a handle on requirements, an FNDC finance team analyst and representatives from TechnologyOne spent time with staff over a two-week period before the installation.

Once the core system was running smoothly, some real smarts were introduced in November through the TechnologyOne BI (business intelligence) module. The ‘visual data analyser’ sits on top of the system like a dashboard, with amber or green traffic lights monitoring key performance indicators and a speed dial literally showing overall budget status for example.

Because the BI interface provides an ideal overview of the governance and financial health of the organisation, it has been made the de facto home page for general managers. “It is the first thing they see when they arrive in the morning. If there is a red alert they can act immediately, accessing the analysis bar and being guided through a series of hyperlinks to the source of the problem.”

The new view also helps Smith’s finance team better address wider issues. “Instead of waving pieces of paper at managers we can now call a meeting, put the dashboard up on a screen and talk [about] it,” literally ensuring everyone is on the same page.

Reworking reports

A second challenge came with the election of a new council in October 2007, which had an entirely different approach to managing the $1.2 billion in assets and annual revenues of around $120 million. Rather than project-based reporting, it wanted accountability linked back to the managers, which was achieved with relative ease given the flexibility of the system. “We were able to make all the changes required between council meetings — in less than a month,” says Smith.

She says it’s important in the planning stages to look at all the possibilities of what you might want to report on, or how you might want data broken down. Everything is based on a ‘chart of accounts’, with multiple ledgers grouped and coded according to the reporting parameters. “If you have the right selection codes attached, you can slice and dice the numbers any way you want. Every code in our system has a manager key attached so you know who’s responsible for what expenditure.”

The council now scans in invoices as they arrive, and tracks them through the system. If someone wants to know the payment on their account they can go to the attachment link and pull it up on the screen, rather than someone having to sort through physical boxes in the archives.

Not only has the new system created new levels of accountability and responsiveness, since last Christmas, it has shaved two weeks off the time it takes to create reports. “We’ve gone from a 19-day reporting cycle down to five,” says Smith. Dramatic improvements in productivity and customer service have lifted quite a load from a number of staff, who can now concentrate on issues previously pushed to the bottom of the pile including working with the managers.

The success of the overall project is partly attributed to the long-term vision of Ian Sivyer, general manager of finance and business, who also has responsibility for IT. His philosophy is to get beyond a pure accounting mentality and work to enhance council performance. “The advice I would give to other councils is to think outside the box. This is not just about numbers but business processes; it’s a really powerful business management tool that is easy to use.”

The old system was difficult to manage and not suitable for broader solutions. Sivyer says the shared system delivers far more than initially expected. “Because we are able to exchange live data with plan data, we can develop ‘scenario’ models that are a lot more accurate and bring much greater value to what the planning and finance teams are doing.”

Janice Smith’s advice is to get the financials right before adding the other building blocks. “We were stable on financials for two years before we did anything, then we did the initial upgrade from the old menu-driven system to the more internet-driven Ci version.”

Only then did the FNDC move on to the invoice scanning system, works and projects and the enterprise budgeting, which it is currently bedding in.

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