EBS works MAGIQ for City of Ballarat with six-week deployment of ‘game-changing’ budgeting system
Major Victorian regional local government City of Ballarat has overhauled the planning and preparation process for its $260 million-a-year budget after a review of past practises and a change in senior staff. City of Ballarat selected Melbourne-based enterprise resource planning specialist Evolution Business System (EBS) to deploy the MAGIQ Budgeting solution in just six weeks at the start of 2021. As well as coming in under budget, the flexible and proactive performance by EBS enabled the City of Ballarat to prepare its budget in record time, with unprecedented transparency and consultation.
The challenge: Budget development was too dependent on one person
City of Ballarat is one of the largest local governments in regional Victoria, with more than 760 full-time equivalent (EFT) employees and income of about $267 million for 2021. The municipality covers an area of 740 square kilometres, which includes the outlying townships of Buninyong, Miners Rest, Learmonth and Cardigan Village.
When the departure of several senior executives during the first half of 2020 exposed some weakness around the budget development process, the council decided to remove any risk by creating a much more transparent and consultative budget development process.
In October 2020, City of Ballarat’s Acting Director of Corporate Services Stephen Bigarelli and Senior Management Accountant Luke Wheeler embarked on a review of available solutions to identify a software-based system that could integrate with its existing Microsoft Office 365 environment and the Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Local Government financial management system.
Mr Wheeler said non-negotiable features for the required budgeting system were that it worked, included labour budgeting and was easy to use. “It had to be easy for users to understand, so it would be straightforward for them to do labour budgeting, capital planning and so on,” he said.
“As part of that, it had to look nice on the eye, so that users found it is simple to learn and navigate.”
After reviewing the market, City of Ballarat selected MAGIQ Budgeting, a powerful business budgeting software tool offered by Melbourne-based Evolution Business Systems (EBS), which specialises in selling, installing and supporting enterprise resource planning solutions for not-for-profit organisations and local governments.
City of Ballarat placed an order for MAGIQ with EBS at the end of December that year.
“Our staff say that previously, the budget did not represent what we do. The budget now is about what our people actually do rather than being a projection based on the previous year’s budget. This is a much more open, transparent process.”
Senior Management Accountant
The Journey: EBS made MAGIQ feel like a purpose-built system for City of Ballarat
EBS began deploying the MAGIQ software at City of Ballarat early in January 2021, with the system going live six weeks later, on February 22.
Mr Wheeler said that, despite that pressure to deliver the new system quickly, EBS was on budget. “In fact, we had money left over, so it came in under budget,” he said.
“I did have many weird and wonderful requests, but EBS was able to accommodate them all. We were still building and testing the day it went live, but we couldn’t wait any longer to get the budget process going.
“The go-live date was February 22. The new budget started on July 1. All the budgets came in on the timeline that they were supposed to. We achieved a huge amount in a short period of time.”
Mr Wheeler said EBS was distinguished by its ability to get things done, its willingness to work at any time and to come up with ideas. “I thought it would have been impossible for them to turn it around in that timeframe, but they were able to do it,” he said.
“I can’t commend them enough for getting it done in such a short time. I was so impressed by the flexibility in making changes that they offered. Peter would come up with ideas and I would say ‘that sounds good, go do it’ – and it would happen. I haven’t seen that type of flexibility before.
“While we did buy MAGIQ as an off-the-shelf product, EBS was able to customise it to the degree that it felt like it was a bespoke product for the City of Ballarat. That was the biggest surprise from my side. It does not feel like an out-of-the-box system. It was a two-way communication path. They accommodated every one of my wishes straight away. We pretty much got everything we asked for.
“Some of the stuff EBS set up with labour budgeting went well past where we thought it could go. It’s 90 per cent there but that’s because we keep thinking of new things. We were learning about how much this system is capable of. Rather than dealing directly with the vendor, we were working with a company that had the flexibility to make changes which really pushed the product.”
The Solution: Reduced risk, greater consultation and better information
Mr Wheeler said the budget development process would normally start in January. “This year we did not commence it until the fourth week of February,” he said.
“Also, we included consultation whereas previously it did not. We even managed to incorporate some community consultation, so we did reasonably well this year considering the short timeframe.
“Our people asked for more transparency and openness. As a result, they requested an extra 100 EFT staff over what we had and twice the capital expenditure budget. When you ask people what they want, they tell you. It allowed everyone to have their say – they now feel listened to, even if they did not get what they asked for.
“That was game-changing, a big cultural shift. We really flipped it on its head. Also, it has helped us in the long run because we now know what people want to work towards.
“The benefits are the ones you can’t measure in financial terms, such as people’s acceptance. You can’t put dollars on that. For example, it has lifted the profile of the finance department to a much higher level because we are seen as consulting rather than dictating.”
Mr Wheeler said MAGIQ made the budget development process much better. “It is much more transparent and consultative than before and better reflects what our organisation does,” he said.
“Our staff say that previously, the budget did not represent what we do. The budget now is about what our people actually do rather than being a projection based on the previous year’s budget. This is a much more open, transparent process.
“We now ask people what they want rather than tell them what to do. We have a planning product that they can use and understand, and we have a good system with the critical knowledge embedded.
“Time-wise it took more time because this was the first time, thus more complex, but it is a better developed system than Ballarat had used before, so we now have that history there, which means it will be much easier in future.
“What was crucial in moving to a new system was getting away from that Key Man Risk. Although this year the budget was largely developed by Stephen Bigarelli and I, now we are recruiting two management accountants to assist with this role in future so the knowledge will be distributed across multiple people.”
Mr Wheeler said the City of Ballarat was already planning enhancements to the MAGIQ system. “There’s another 10 per cent we’d like to do to make the system perfect,” he said.
“For example, MAGIQ has the potential to use it for forecasting to let us re-forecast our budgets quarterly throughout the year. That’s made easier because EBS came in under budget.
“This year there will also be more public consultation, so we have community input to start building the budget internally.”
Mr Wheeler said EBS had delivered MAGIQ to do everything the City of Ballarat expected. “What I did not expect was for the deployment to be as clean as it was and to get all our wishes and requests come through,” he said.
“For any other councils seeking a budgeting solution, look for a system that is flexible and transparent and easy to use for users, not just for finance people. It must be easy for the user, just like MAGIQ.
“The biggest thing for me was the great user experience. We have a lot of staff who are not too savvy in finance, so this system has helped make it easier for them to understand what to do.”