Nevada tags financial data

XBRL will be used to streamline reporting of grants, debt collection

Nevada has begun applying the Extensible Business Reporting Language to a number of its business processes and has plans to use it as part of its business Web portal, according to State Controller Kim Wallin.

She has high hopes that XBRL can streamline reporting and citizen services for the state. Her office has been working with Deloitte Consulting to apply XBRL to the grants reporting process since January. Officials hope to have a fully working system by fall. The office is also in the early stages of using XBRL for documents related to debt collection.

Created by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, XBRL is a vendor-neutral extension of the Extensible Markup Language (XML) and offers a large set of markup tags for reporting on business activities. A growing number of enterprise applications support XBRL, including development tools from Altova and General Ledger software from Oracle.

Nevada documents how it uses federal grant money on a monthly basis for external and internal use. Employees who generate the reports must download the data, copy it to a report template and export it by downloading a portion of the agency's general ledger in a comma-separated values (CSV) file generated by a data warehouse and also pulling data from the state's records. They then must insert parts of those datasets into Microsoft Excel spreadsheets that detail how the money gets used, such as for salaries or office supplies.

The state uses that information to monitor expenditures and ensure that they fall within established boundaries. However, the approach is time-consuming for employees — it takes an average of two weeks for an employee to generate the monthly report. And as with any manual process, cutting and pasting data creates opportunities for errors.

To automate the process, the controller's office is developing an XBRL GL Adapter that applies tags to each general ledger entry. After the CSV file is downloaded, the XBRL data fields can be populated directly into a report employees build using Web-based XForms that process XML. The state carved a subset from XBRL to build a taxonomy that describes its grants reporting process and is used to tag all the fields in the report.

"The program manager will go into a screen that is using XForms underneath, and this is where they can add or modify the grants they have," Wallin said. When it comes to generating reports, the grants manager selects the date range, and the data automatically flows into the right fields. All in all, generating a report should take about an hour, she added.

Officials are also in the early stages of applying XBRL to debt collection documents, Wallin said. They keep records of individuals who owe the state money for back taxes or some other reason and outsource the debt collection to a number of private parties. Ideally, if the state is paying a delinquent party for some reason, it should hold that money until the outstanding debt is paid off.

The state agency that oversees debt collection stores information in 71 spreadsheets. Employees must manually paste that data into letters sent to the debtors and commercial debt collection agencies, all of which takes time and can lead to errors. Matching the list of parties being paid by the state against a list of state debtors is also done by hand.

"Because we don't have a consolidated database of our debtors, we have all these different spreadsheets [and] we can't check our debtors against our vendor database automatically," Wallin said.

The state plans to build an XBRL-based debt collection taxonomy that can be used to annotate all debt-collection data, she said. The agency can then easily build additional systems that will access those sources of data for tasks such as generating letters to debtors and collection agencies and checking money paid against a list of debtors.

Wallin would also like to use XBRL to tie together a state portal for businesses. Right now, the process of starting a business in Nevada, as in many other states, involves applying for permits and licenses at a number of agencies. And each agency collects a lot of identical information, such as names and addresses.

The controller's office plans to establish a statewide taxonomy that can be used by all the various agency systems to share basic information so business owners would only have to supply it once. "It will be a one-stop shop for all business transactions," she said.

By working with XBRL, Nevada is following the lead of a number of federal agencies. For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission mandates that companies file their public reports to the its Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval database using XBRL, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. requires U.S. banks to file quarterly reports in XBRL.

In March, members of the XBRL Consortium told Congress that the language could help with oversight of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. Requiring financial firms to file reports in XBRL would make it easier for the government and investors to evaluate the activities of those firms, they said.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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