Financial-flavored XML takes shape

A consortium of software, consulting and accounting firms hopes to recruit government financial managers as users of a new electronic publishing language that standardizes how agencies present financial reports.

The international XBRL Project Committee has developed Extensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL) as a standard way of tagging financial data so that it can be easily pulled into electronic financial statements, tax returns and World Wide Web pages. The standard should help lower the cost of producing those documents and facilitate the exchange of information among businesses and the government.

While the committee designed XBRL primarily for public companies that are required to produce financial statements and reports quarterly and annually, it also is developing a federal reporting model for the Extensible Markup Language (XML)-based tool, said Christopher Moyer, an accountant at KPMG Consulting LLC.

The federal version of XBRL for Financial Statements — the first XBRL product — will use the Office of Management and Budget form and content guidelines to appropriately tag reports.

XBRL for Financial Statements is expected to be available in July, following a 60-day comment period. The committee started building the first specifications for it on April 6.

The XBRL Project Committee is made up of 40 companies representing the financial information supply chain, including the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, Arthur Andersen, Microsoft Corp., KPMG LLP, Oracle Corp., Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. and Edgar Online Inc.

A lot of work has gone into creating the first specifications to define the technology architecture for the young XML, said Louis Matherne, director of information technology at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

XML, a markup language primarily used to post documents with structured information on the Internet, was accepted as a standard by the World Wide Web Consortium in February 1999. With the increasing growth of e-commerce, government and industry are converting data from a variety of formats into XML.

Using copies of federal financial statements downloaded from FinanceNet (www.financenet.gov), members of the XBRL Project Committee checked to determine how closely such documents comply with OMB's guidelines. The closer they follow the format, the easier it is to develop standard definitions and to tag the data in a standard way, Moyer said.

Once financial data is put into XML using XBRL as an electronic dictionary, the data can be disseminated to any format, including a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet or an Oracle database, for example, or directly onto a Web site, Moyer said. The federal version also uses the Treasury Department's crosswalk document between the items on a financial statement and OMB form and content to identify federal financial data.

The committee is in the early stages of educating potential government users about the language and hopes to draw interest from OMB, Treasury, the General Accounting Office and other agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Agriculture Department, which receive commercial financial statements as well as produce their own, Moyer said.

As a standard for financial reporting emerges, the government will have to look at the benefits of moving in that direction, said Karen Alderman, executive director of the Joint Financial Management Improvement Program, which publishes federal financial management requirements and conducts qualification testing for commercial products before they are sold in the federal market.

"Federal financial transactions are a small subset of overall transactions," Alderman said, "but we are increasingly using commercial means to conduct them."

XBRL will provide a better understanding of financial data for budgeting because of the ease of analysis in any software environment, Moyer said. XBRL for Financial Statements is designed for external financial reports, but future products will address general ledger, tax, regulatory filing (for commercial users), accounting and business reports and authoritative literature.

"The focus is on the area of greatest impact — financial statements — to lead to the rest," said Christy Riechelm, Microsoft's mid-market enterprise resource planning industry manager. "The Internet is the driver."

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