By Eric Barendsen
WAPA's financial management software is going through a series of upgrades this year. Unlike a similar renovation completed in 2016, these enhancements are being carried out primarily by in-house staff. This saves approximately $5 million when compared to the last time the platform was revamped on this scale.
“Like our phones and laptops, regular updates and enhancements to our financial systems are necessary," said Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Mike Peterson. “To the extent we can affect these upgrades cost-effectively, all the better. The Financial Information Management System is the backbone of our financial operations, tracking the disposition of every dollar WAPA touches. In the broadest sense, the goal of systems enhancements is to enable us to spend more time managing our business and less time managing our data."
The data WAPA generates. For example, FIMS tracks the lifecycle of a transformer from the creation of a purchase requisition, to placing the asset in service, through depreciation of the asset over its operable life, ending with the asset's disposal.
“As a Power Marketing Administration, WAPA engages customers, suppliers and other federal entities such as Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers thousands and thousands of times per year," said Peterson. “FIMS tracks each of these activities for us, including fund flows to and from the generating agencies and our returns to the Treasury which, incidentally, topped $272 million last fiscal year."
WAPA also pulls most of the financial data it publishes in its annual report and on The Source, the organization's transparency website, from information tracked in FIMS.
Like all things Information Technology, FIMS must evolve and improve to stay relevant. Beginning in 2015, the FIMS vendor began to modernize the look and feel of the application's front end. They implemented the SubLedger Accounting module, which allows for complex logic to be used in accounting transactions, and introduced functionality that allowed Finance to export reports directly in PDF, Word or Excel formats.
The project took nine months and relied mostly on consultants performing the work. WAPA staff was mainly used to help consultants understand the organization's business processes and test the system before it went live. WAPA decided to use this “system integrator methodology" because inhouse staff did not have the expertise necessary to complete an upgrade that
extensive. At various times during the effort, there were 20 or more consultants working on the project, which, including federal and contract staff, ended up costing WAPA around $7.6 million dollars.
“After the upgrade was done in 2016, leadership in the CFO's office and IT got together to see what we could do to make updates cheaper moving forward," said Supervisory Accountant Justin Borsheim. “The idea that WAPA would need to pay more than seven million dollars every few years was unacceptable."
Between 2016 and 2020, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer and the Office of the Chief Information Officer spent significant time training staff on project management and change management, as well as enhancing the skill sets of federal and contract staff.
“WAPA adopted 'agile development' methodologies, which allow us to be more focused as a group on a common goal," said Borsheim. “We also brought in a couple of key resources that brought our skill levels up."
Most of the FIMS enhancements WAPA has completed in the last few years with in-house personnel would have been impossible before boosting the expertise of employees. For example, using 100% in-house personnel, Finance and the Office of the Chief Information Officer have implemented updates to track and approve invoices electronically, built integrations between FIMS and the Treasury's Invoice Processing Platform and annually imported data to The Source. Prior to 2016, WAPA would have enlisted consultants to complete those enhancements.
As part of the upgrade project that began in 2020, WAPA slashed the number of financial reports supported within FIMS from more than 20,000 to fewer than 400. IT will no longer need to support and troubleshoot nearly as many reports, saving significant time and money.
The upgrade is laying the groundwork for WAPA to be able to comply with the Department of the Treasury's G-Invoicing mandate, which requires federal agencies to standardize the way they manage intragovernmental buying and selling transactions. It will also enable patches to occur while the system is fully functional, allowing WAPA to maintain near 24/7 uptime.
Previously, IT had to take the entire system down for hours to apply patches. Soon it will take only 30 minutes.
“Not only will the system be more accessible and easily maintained, but the current refresh also includes additional modernization of the front end and more user-friendly forms and reports," said Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer Mike Montoya. “That will be a big step up in terms of flexibility and ease of use at a time when our workforce can use it."
The biggest changes between the 2016 project and today's are the methodology WAPA is using to accomplish its objectives and how much WAPA's approach and proficiency have evolved. The improvements happening now will take approximately 10 months and rely mostly on in-house contract and federal staff. Consultants are brought in only for areas that need a significant amount of focus or where workload is substantial.
To date, only two consultants have been brought in to assist, saving roughly $5 million dollars in comparison to the old model.
“Cost-effective solutions like our 2021 FIMS upgrade help to keep our rates low and our returns to Treasury high," said Peterson.
Note: Barendsen is a public affairs specialist.