Better on balance
Agencies turn to online financial apps to get a handle on their bottom lines and to comply with rules
- By David Essex
- Jan 23, 2004
Government bookkeeping used to involve people in green eyeshades who painstakingly wrote transactions in heavy, lined ledgers. The eyeshades are gone but not all the ledgers are, even in shops that long ago built mainframe accounting programs.
Such leaky, creaky methods for managing government finance won't do in the age of secure e-government transactions and the President's Management Agenda. With mandates for improving accounting practices coming fast and furious, governments at all levels are taking a hard look at upgrading their enterprise financial software.
We're not talking about QuickBooks or Peachtree here, but network server-based, Web-accessible programs that can gather information from thousands of far-flung invoices, forms and other records, and reliably place that information into a single electronic ledger.
The mandates give agencies little choice in the matter. On top of that is the realization that two or three generations have passed since the start of computerization, and the architects of the original programs are retiring, creating an urgent need for software that is more flexible, affordable, standardized across organizational boundaries, and easy to learn and use.
Besides adhering to broad industry accounting standards, federal agencies have to meet the requirements of the Joint Financial Management Improvement Program, an effort to certify commercial software that agencies can use to maintain a single, integrated financial system.
JFMIP released new standards last year that required all the major financial application vendors to reapply for certification, and all of them had received it by year's end. At the state and local level, the most important benchmark is Government Accounting Standards Board Statement 34, which requires governments to provide a publicly available overview of their total financial health, infrastructure assets and costs.
Agencies looking to jettison outmoded apps and reduce the number of systems they manage are moving increasingly to enterprise resource planning systems, according to vendors and analysts.
Oracle Corp., PeopleSoft Inc. and SAP America Inc. each sell their standard ERP software to governments, augmenting them with tailor-made modules for grants administration, federal purchasing and other special needs. PeopleSoft is working to expand its ERP functions beyond its niche as a human resources vendor and claims to have the largest market share at all levels of government. The company says it will continue developing the J.D. Edwards 5 product it acquired last year'and renamed PeopleSoft EnterpriseOne'because it brings a stronger presence in asset-intensive agencies and industries.
American Management Systems Inc., a longtime government stalwart in federal financial software and services, competes aggressively with higher-profile newcomers and is moving more into the state and local markets, though it does not offer a full-blown ERP package.
It touts its government experience, chiding the ERP vendors for having generic solutions that were originally designed for industry. AMS claims, for example, that it does a better job of handling accounting practices that are unique to the federal government, such as continuing resolutions, which require tracking funds across fiscal years.
Digital Systems Group Inc. is another vendor with a long history of selling to the federal government, especially the Defense Department. It has a much lower profile but prides itself on selling its well-tuned, real-time Integrated Financial Management Information System for a fraction of what SAP and the others charge.Refreshment time
'When we come back and say the transaction is complete, it truly is,' said DSG president Stan Yavoroski, contrasting IFMIS with ERP packages that can take hours to refresh data.
SAP claims to have the most tightly integrated modules and a number of major government users, including the Army and Navy. It also has a contract for ImaginePA, an ambitious effort, now partially implemented, to standardize accounting and e-government systems in Pennsylvania. Despite slow adoption of ERP-style financials in the federal government overall, due to inadequate funding, the Army and Navy projects are far along.
'They're not all perfect, but I'm impressed,' said John Kost, managing vice president at the government division of Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn.
SAP dismisses competitors' claims that its software is too generic for government. 'If you look at the universe of requirements that the government has to meet, 85 percent are common with the business world,' said Leslie Stevens, SAP's federal industry director. 'What is unique to the federal government, SAP has been able to add that to the core financial product.'
Something else is driving agencies to consider ERP financial programs: an increasing desire for control over the supply chains and fixed assets that ERP was born to manage.
Federal agencies have gone to ERP to keep better tabs on human and hard assets, especially during rapid deployments, as for the Iraq war recently.
Responding to this emerging demand for tools to run key business processes such as procurement, grants administration and travel management, application vendors added new modules that go beyond core accounting fundamentals identified by JFMIP, such as general ledger, accounts receivable and payable, and sometimes purchasing.
More recently, states and municipalities have expressed interest in optional modules to help harness the stream of antiterrorism funds coming from the Homeland Security Department.
PeopleSoft's Guardian, for example, is a bundle of financial modules combined expressly for this purpose.
'We focus on the human capital management area' to help localities manage who can be deployed, said Kimberley Williams, PeopleSoft's director of strategy for education and government.
But Amy Santenello, senior research analyst at META Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., doubts whether the need is there just yet. 'There's a lot of discussion around it, but the majority of the money is going to 'boots and suits,' ' Santenello said.
Some predict that these trends, combined with Web services and a common Federal Enterprise Architecture, will converge to bring about much greater consolidation of multiple agencies' financial data.
'The general notion is there ought to be some sort of financial consolidation of agencies, where practical,' said Tim Hurlebaus, a senior principal at AMS.
Alternatively, one agency may simply host another's financial applications, serving as a sort of applications service provider; the National Business Center of the the Interior Department, an AMS customer, could be a model, he said. For example, several agencies outsource their financial processing, such as payroll, to NBC.David Essex is a free-lance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.