23 August 2015

Visualising government benchmarking data

The New Zealand government has released their most recent Benchmarking Administrative and Support Services (BAAS) data. What is interesting about this data is the ability to analyse spend, not at a highly detailed level, but certainly in more detail than previously possible. The information is provided in Excel. What is interesting is what you can do with the Excel data for analysis and, better, display of information graphically, to derive meaning.

I highly recommend taking a look at how this, relatively high-level, information can be presented.

Before discussing they need for a more detailed taxonomy, I'll make the following observation: The information is available in Excel, against a single set of line-item names, and columns for periods and spend. It is simple, it is easy to use and import, and absolutely ZERO specialist XBRL knowledge is required to import, analyze and gain meaning from that data. There is much to learn from such initiatives.
The need for a more detailed taxonomy
The need for a more detailed taxonomy of ICT and other government expenditure
Financial reporting and analysis provides value only when used to compare performance against either targets, benchmarks or competitors. Fundamental to the ability to perform effective analysis is the presumption that all reported line items are equivalent across reporting entities. Equivalence of meaning is the critical point, and without adequate definitions, there will be no clarity. Therefore, there needs to be an agreed taxonomy of reporting terms, at sufficient levels of deconstruction to allow the reporting of exactly the information that the entity wants to report, at the level of detail they want to report, linked to a definition that is accepted as the only definition for the reported level of information. 
Granularity is also required to ensure that there is minimal overlap between reported items, and little opportunity to report items in one of multiple categories or line items. When considering a Balance Sheet (for example) the first and most obvious question may be "is the reported item an Asset or a Liability?" It cannot be both, or either. Cash is not a liability (unless you are a bank), as is Property Plant and Equipment. Likewise, Accounts Payable and Long Term Debt are liabilities. There is no overlap, and therefore the information, unless you are Worldcom, should only be reported on one side of the ledger of the other. 
How does this relate to BASS? While there are over 800 line items in the BASS spreadsheet (many are either summation or calculated lines and not actual reportable line items) there can be overlap or alternative interpretation of how and where information will be reported. This reduced inter-agency or entity performance and expenditure comparisons. 
Too often interpretive differences in the meaning of scope of potential meaning of a reported line item can lead to multiple entities reporting the same line item, while defining the detailed content differently. For example one agency could include a software charge as 'Software' while another records it as 'Outsourced' because, while the agency licences it, it is only used to enable an outsourced service. Neither are necessarily wrong. Such use of a common element with slightly different interpretation increases the complexity of comparatives, and increases the amount of manual intervention required to gain meaningful insights from what is theoretically the same information. 
Any taxonomy does not need to be complex in and of itself, but it does need to represent an agreed set of line items and associated detailed descriptions. The ICT section of the BASS reporting framework have approximately 125 line items, many of which are summation items. 
What is required for effective reporting is not an ever expanding list of potential line items against which to report, but a set of line items elements with very clear definitions. For example, the US-GAAP "Generally Accepted Accounting Principles" taxonomy (in XBRL, which I do NOT recommend) has over 18,000 possible reporting elements, growing every year. In addition, companies can add additional custom items, only increasing the complexity and reducing comparability. Imagine if each BASS reporting entity could choose to add line items. 
Instead, keep the list as tight as meaningful, and clearly define the boundaries of each item. In this way is it is possible to reduce the ability to select from any of a number of items depending on your individual interpretation. The benefits? Simplified reporting, greater clarity, and easier comparability between entities, and greater value in the information reported and analysed.