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Technology for group decision making: how Fairfax County redesigns financial processes.

The authors describe how "meetingware" was used to redesign financial processes in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Editor's note: Each year the Government Finance Officers Association bestows its prestigious Award for Excellence to recognize outstanding contributions in the field of government finance. The awards stress practical, documented work that offers leadership to the profession and promotes improved public finance. This article describes the 1997 winning entry in the Technology subcategory of the Financial Management category.

In 1997, the County of Fairfax, Virginia's Department of Finance received the GFOA Award for Excellence for its program "Using Group Systems to Redesign the Year End Business Process." This program involved the use of a local area network and commercially available software to conduct electronic meetings to examine and improve the year-end process. The success of the task and the portability of the techniques make this use of technology an inviting prospect for successfully meeting one of the most consistent challenges faced by financial managers: understanding the needs of their customers and hearing ideas from all areas of the organization.

Time is one of the few commodities which cannot be recovered, recycled, or replaced. In large and small organizations alike, it is lost each day to meetings which are less than fully productive. That, of course, translates to lost money. One could estimate the total hourly wage of employees in a meeting and assign the total amount to the product of the meeting. One could then conclude, "We just spent $850 to agree that we have a problem, yet we are no closer to a solution than when the meeting convened." This is not an atypical outcome; however, it does not need to be that way.

The Year-end Dream

Wrapping up business at the end of a fiscal year is often a complex undertaking for local governments. The larger and more diverse the organization and its mission, the harder it is to design and implement a process to accommodate the full range of needs across the organization. No matter how large or small the organization, the demand for accuracy and completeness in recording all valid encumbrances and paying bills up to the last-minute increases organizational stress. Accrual of revenue and expenditures, compliance with various grant requirements, state and federal reimbursement programs, and diverse accounting systems used by county departments simply add to the complexities. The key to a successful year-end routine is two-fold: 1) planning - which takes into account the needs of all users of the financial system, and 2) clear guidance - which can be followed and used by individuals of varying backgrounds and experience. With close to one hundred agencies in Fairfax County, it was almost taken for granted that the year-end process was an annual agony that was to be survived rather than conquered. Multiple group planning sessions, long plenary meetings with representatives from all county agencies, and Department of Finance processing sessions lasting well into the night were part of the ritual. Dedicated employees always came through, but this ordeal was draining. County managers felt that there had to be a better way.

Are there better ways to match the needs of the central accounting system with the many and diverse needs and requirements of the user agencies? Are there more effective ways of communicating with end users and agency staff? Attempts to find those ways were never fully successful. The problem was that planning sessions barely scratched the surface of the creativity and practical ideas among county staff. In addition, meetings were long and too few of the right people contributed. That was the real problem.

Need for Effective Meetings

Much has been written about how to conduct effective meetings. Steps to conduct effective meetings are generally well-known: use a written agenda; clearly state the meeting's objective at the beginning; appoint a facilitator to keep the discussion on track and to encourage full participation; record minutes; demand respect for dissenting opinions; summarize what was said and describe decisions taken; and, distribute minutes with a description of any follow-up actions. Why, then, is it so hard to put these theories into practice in local government and produce results each and every time teams or staff assemble?

Most leaders have a number of explanations for why meetings are inefficient. It can be difficult to limit meetings to crisp dialogue on only the topic addressed in the agenda. Discussions get sidetracked easily, and sometimes with the result that participants walk away with more questions than answers. Although small groups tend to have more focused discussions, they also have a far smaller net with which to harvest fresh ideas and creative solutions.

A very frequent problem in meetings is that one or more participants dominate the discussion. This is often because they are the "experts" or the ones with the most information, but the best ideas often come from the most unexpected sources. Another source of problems in meetings is interpersonal disruptions and hidden agendas perhaps stemming from professional rivalries, personality clashes, or an excess of competitive drive. Whatever the cause, the effect is too often the same: diversion of energy from the task at hand.

Electronic Meetings

For several years Fairfax County has been using electronic meetings to improve group performance and to foster teamwork. These electronic meetings are supported by a relatively new genre of software often called "meetingware." However, sometimes the idea of looking to technology to solve people problems seems repugnant to the experienced public manager. Do these techniques work by fostering positive habits at meetings? Fairfax County has found this to be the case.

There are three elements to the way meetingware (referred to as the Group Decision Support System or GDSS) is used in Fairfax County.

* Groups meet in a Fairfax County facility equipped like many personal computer training rooms, but furnished and configured to maximize the electronic meeting. Each participant has a personal computer linked in a local area network. The computer monitors are housed below the desktop, providing each person complete privacy. There is a large public display screen for certain group activities. Individual workstations are arranged in a U-shape, simulating a traditional conference table arrangement, physically bringing the group from isolated input to an eye-to-eye team environment.

* Commercial off-the-shelf software developed especially for this purpose leverages the capabilities of the network. More than an electronic notebook and communication device, the software organizes the work group, smoothly leading it through team activities such as brainstroming, categorizing, and voting at a pace rarely achieved in traditional meetings. It provides for alternative analysis and statistical support that quickly arrange ideas in patterns focused on the meeting's goals or simply tells the team when they have reached consensus and it is time to move on.

* A trained facilitator leads group sessions serving as a bridge between the technology and the team, sharing successful strategies from earlier uses of the system. Individuals from within the ranks of the county are volunteer facilitators who have been trained in group dynamics, the software, and the techniques used in the GDSS. Three facilitators from the Department of Finance, one of whom led the year-end project, are available to other county agencies.

Meetingware

There are a number of good commercial meetingware applications on the market. The Fairfax program was initiated through a research grant in conjunction with George Mason University. Most meetingware applications offer the group the opportunity for:

* brainstorming,

* organizing ideas,

* developing group outlines,

* voting,

* ranking preferences, and

* feedback.

The most important part of the program for working on the year-end process was the ability to capture every word "said" by participants. These verbatim minutes are made available to everyone immediately. Traditional methods make this difficult to do with a group of 20 people, one of whom may be standing in front of the group at a flip chart, writing furiously with an oversized and quickly depleting ink marker. The value of capturing all comments is tremendous. Moreover, all comments are anonymous. Participants experience a growing feeling that they have a voice in the project. Their stake in success has grown and thus the probability of success has grown.

The anonymity aspect of this application troubles some prospective users. Some may wonder how long it takes before this turns into an electronic egg-throwing event with years of frustration being released at the speed of the nearest PC. In practice, Fairfax County found that this is not a major problem There can be bruised egos as participants get a dose of reality regarding their heretofore commanding presence in meetings. But that is one of the major assets of the electronic meeting. Groups evaluate ideas on their own merit rather than on the weight of authority or strength of personality from which they come. Moreover, criticism becomes much easier to digest in this environment. No one knows where an idea came from, and any criticism is of the idea itself, not the person who offered it. Likewise, everyone feels free to express honest opinions about ideas because they know their comments will not be taken personally.

The GDSS In Action

To visualize the potential benefit of using GDSS, consider how the project would progress using traditional meeting techniques. Three groups of 20 knowledgeable financial system users were scheduled to separately participate in half-day sessions. The first phase of the project sought to obtain feedback and suggestions on 25 selected aspects of the year-end closing process. The task was to solicit from each person comments, criticism, and suggestions. In a traditional group meeting, this task alone would take days to complete. It would go something like this: Participants would assemble in a large conference room and would be asked to provide some 75 comments, three in each of 25 categories. Participants would be told that their comments would be shared with the entire group so that each participant might consider what others have said in generating additional ideas. Participants would then be asked to rank good ideas in order of their importance or value. The sheer time it would take to go around the room to hear the ideas makes this a daunting task.

Using GDSS, the three groups averaged one hour and ten minutes to complete the task. Sitting at their individual computer, each participant viewed the 25 topics on the public display screen, selecting the topics on which they wished to comment. They had the opportunity to see each comment exactly as entered by their teammates, not knowing who entered which. The facilitator watched for topics which were not receiving very much attention and encouraged the group in that direction and used the public screen to point out comments which were shared by several participants. In just over one hour, the group had provided a considerable amount of candid, honest feedback and thoughtful suggestions for change. They also were provided with full transcripts of the session so that they could monitor follow-up action by the Department of Finance in implementing change.

In the second phase of the meeting, participants were asked to identify critical success factors. The same brainstorming technique was used. For the most part, the ideas generated were not new, but perhaps for the first time, the Department of Finance was hearing new opinions and preferences from the people who were key to making the year-end process successful - the users in the agencies. This 20-minute, highly focused exercise would normally have taken several hours.

The teams were then asked to complete an on-line survey asking about written year-end instructions, the annual kick-off meeting, and the time needed to complete year-end activities. They were given 12 statements and asked to indicate their agreement or disagreement on a five-point scale, from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." Within 15 minutes, the survey results were available to them in two formats. The group's responses were displayed showing the mean score for each question and the list of questions was displayed in the average order of importance to the group. Beyond being just a time saver, this tool enabled staff to examine some of the reasons for unexpected results. For example, the group strongly agreed that attendance at all-agency plenary sessions should be mandatory. This was curious: why should the group vote that they should be required to attend sessions they already recognized as valuable? The answer was that their managers did not always see the value and by making attendance mandatory there was a far better chance staff would be freed from routine duties to attend.

Selection of Electronic Meeting

The Department of Finance was an early supporter of GDSS. Three people from the Department of Finance volunteered for training as facilitators, and they accumulated experience in assisting other projects using the county's facility. It was natural, therefore, that this was the resource of choice when the need arose for a large team effort to be completed in a short time period.

Pursuing the Dream

To get the most from the business process redesign, Fairfax County attempted to involve all stakeholders in using GDSS to tackle the year-end problem. Because of the large number of user-agencies in the county's financial systems, three groups were assembled from across the county. Each session lasted one-half day and the goals were straightforward.

1) List from the users' perspective critical success factors.

2) Identify activities already being done well.

3) Select and focus on major opportunities for improvement.

There was no shortage of criticism or suggestions for change. Most striking to those in the Department of Finance was a sentiment that there was too much attention paid to the needs of the department and too little to the needs at the working levels in the agencies. Participants commented that there was an assumption by the department that everyone knew the process well. Time-saving innovations or process streamlining in one part of the county were not being shared with others who could benefit from them. Written guidance, although accurate, simply was not adequate. Even the published schedule of events was found to be inadequate for planning workflow and activities. For example, each year the department published a matrix of year-end activities to serve as a planning guide for agencies. It was found that users simply transferred information from this matrix to their wall calendars. It was determined that it could be published in a calendar format thereby eliminating the organizational barriers between user-agencies (e.g., finance, budget, purchasing, and information technology) and making it an interagency calendar. The efficiency of the new format was self-evident: the increased teamwork to develop and enhance the schedule of events and to accommodate the needs of these separate departments was leveraged by the new calendar.

Immediate Results

By using GDSS, the quantity of ideas generated was far greater than that obtained in planning sessions. Also, by using this technique, no idea was lost or suppressed and team members commented that real-time viewing of posted comments inspired new ideas. Of particular value was the observation that every suggestion and comment received an unbiased evaluation and could be judged on its own merit. The discipline of GDSS sessions generated precise and profitable discussion and it allowed groups to solve very specific problems without tangents or diversions.

The measurable results of the revised year-end process were dramatic. In the first year the amount of year-end overtime expended in the Department of Finance was reduced 32.5 percent and there was an additional 10 percent reduction in the next fiscal year. Not only was less effort expended but for the first time, there were no audit adjustments by the county's external auditors. Plenary year-end briefing sessions involving representatives of every county department and financial unit were reduced from three hours to under one hour. Hundreds of telephone calls from user agencies for clarification and assistance were eliminated. Because the year-end coordinator was a trained GDSS facilitator, there were no additional human resources required to conduct these sessions.

Comments From Team Members

At the end of the GDSS session, participants were asked to comment on how they thought GDSS may have contributed to the team's effectiveness. Here is what some of them said.

"Great tool. It lets people say what they want, when they might not have done so in another format."

"Seeing the comments of other people helped me come up with ideas."

"Opportunity to comment honestly without feeling you are being put on the spot."

"I liked being able to see results immediately."

"We accomplished a lot in the meetings that would not have been possible otherwise."

"Ensures full participation by each member without limiting or forcing their input."

Other Experiences

This use of technology has applications to many situations where teams come together. According to a paper published by the University of Arizona's Center for the Management of Information, the use of a version of GDSS by 30 groups at IBM saved an average of 50 percent in labor costs over conventional methods. The elapsed time from the beginning to end of their projects was reduced by an average of 91 percent. Boeing Corporation tracked the results of 64 groups using electronic meetings to define requirements for the shop floor for an aircraft in production. The result was an average labor savings of 71 percent and an average reduction of elapsed time for projects of 91 percent. The Army National Guard saved more than 70 percent in labor costs and 90 percent in project elapsed time in three information systems documentation writing projects. These impressive results continue to be reported as more and more organizations discover ways to apply this technology to the everyday business of meetings.

Conclusions

Fairfax County found that the GDSS technique can lead to process improvement. In particular:

* the year-end process was greatly improved and stakeholders were and are more involved and more committed to continued improvement;

* cross-organization trust and cooperation have improved dramatically; and

* a more effective process emerged and recurring overtime costs were avoided.

By using the county's GDSS facility and staff facilitators, no additional costs were incurred for this project. Considering the savings in future overtime wages, the improved timeliness and quality of year-end processing, and the enhanced teamwork among agencies, this project was a tremendous value for the taxpayers of Fairfax County.

SUSAN PLANCHON is the Director of Finance for Fairfax County. She is responsible for redesigning financial processes. SHARRON HELL-WATSON is Chief of Finance's Procedures and Controls Division and has oversight of the year-end process. She served as facilitator for this GDSS project. JOHN HIGGINS is Deputy Finance Director.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Government Finance Officers Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Higgins, John D.; Hill-Wilson, Sharron; Planchon, Susan S.
Publication:Government Finance Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
Words:3069
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