From complex to the commonplace, EPA calls its own numbers
The Environmental Protection Agency’s finance and budget workers used to spend late nights and weekends trying to decipher the agency’s budget figures.
The Oracle Corp. system they used collected data from program offices around the country, but when the numbers in the system didn’t match what the offices had reported, EPA employees spent hours and sometimes days reconciling the differences.
But what officials called the most tedious part of an arduous process came to an end when EPA installed its Budget Automation System.
“We used spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the real numbers are, but now we have real-time budget information across the entire agency,” said Terry Ouverson, director of systems, planning and integration in EPA’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer.
“We now have budget discussions without all the miscommunication that used to happen. We all look at the same data now.”
The system’s impact on the agency was almost im- mediate, officials said. It helped standardize data inputs and outputs, provided accountability down to the person who entered the data into the system, provided insight into how much program offices were spending versus how much they forecast and matched spending to performance results.
The system lets us “deliver information to managers in a timely manner so they can make decisions,” Ouverson said. “We are using financial management data to support our day-to-day work.”
Using that data to measure performance helped EPA become one of the first agencies to receive a green score for improved financial performance on the President’s Management Agenda scorecard. Green is the highest grade on the red-yellow-green scale the Office of Management and Budget uses.
EPA also is one of only eight agencies able to close its financial books in six weeks instead of the six months most agencies take.
The agency developed the system in 1997 with KeyLogic Systems Inc. of Columbia, Md., and finished implementation in 2000 at a cost of $5.5 million.
From the beginning, the difference was obvious, EPA officials said.
Agency officials reorganized the budget, finance and planning offices and improved their business processes to better incorporate strategic planning, finance, budget and performance measurements.
“We wanted to look across all the financial lines and integrate them,” Ouverson said. “Previously, one office did the planning and one did the budget.”
The application lets fewer employees do more work, Ouverson said. Before EPA implemented the system, the budget division had 70 people; now it has 50, even though the amount of work has increased each year as OMB changed and updated the budget and financial requirements.
“The system allows us to do the more important things and stop doing the mundane ones,” said Ed Walsh, staff director of planning, analysis and accountability in the CFO’s Office.
One example of those important things is predicting payroll or travel costs for the agency.
Ouverson said a lot of effort used to go into modeling the data through the old system because the financial information was imprecise. Through the centralized system, EPA budget officials standardized each office’s funding.
Walsh said the system also lets users preformat 300 to 500 executive budget reports.
“We just drop the budget data into the narrative of the report,” Walsh said. “The system took a complex process and made it feasible.”
In fact, the system has made life so much easier for employees, Walsh said, the amount of overtime needed to assemble the reports was halved.
Before EPA began using the budget system, Walsh said, employees called the annual process the “paper chase” because they had to “cull the information from numerous word processing documents, and that had to be updated every night.”
Now, at the end of a day, Walsh’s staff can give agency executives memory sticks containing summaries they can take home.
“They take less time to prepare, and we have version control,” Walsh said. “And everyone has the latest data.”
Budget employees develop Microsoft Word macros to import data into the reports. The system scripts the requests in Microsoft Visual Basic. It lets budget analysts perform trend analyses that map data to the prior budget year.
“It puts historic budget data into current context,” he said. “Budgeting is all about trends, and if we can explain and take the noise out of the process, it becomes much easier to understand.”
KeyLogic set up the system with a client-server interface, said Jeff Johnston, the company’s project manager. EPA is considering going to a Web system to replace the client-server structure, but agency officals haven’t made a decision yet.
The front end of the system resides on a file server on EPA’s Novell Inc. network, and the back-end database server runs Oracle8i.
Johnston said the Oracle database runs under Microsoft Windows NT and resides on Hewlett-Packard Co. servers with quad processors and 2G of memory.
KeyLogic built the budget application using PowerBuilder from Sybase Inc., and employees can remotely access the system through a virtual private network. The agency uses VPN products from CheckPoint Software Technologies LTD of Redwood City, Calif., and Aventail Corp. of Seattle.
The system downloads data nightly from EPA’s Oracle financial data warehouse using Microsoft SQL Server. This process lets users run reports and compare data quickly.
“The previous system was just unworkable because we all had our own books,” said Will Anderson, acting accountability staff director in the CFO’s Office. “Without the new system, we couldn’t do all the things we have to do by the end-of-the-year deadline.”
Connect with the GCN staff on Twitter @GCNtech.