Profiles in courage—and state government accounting practices

During my time with the State Comptroller of Texas, I mostly did a lot of precise technical writing about fiscal management policies and procedures. But I was also allowed to go crazy and write some features, like this profile of a department and its manager. It ran in the quarterly newsletter.

Balancing change 

Expenditure Assistance integrates technology, human touch

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It’s a common technique — begin a story with an old saying, then deftly weave it into the topic at hand.

But how do you do that when you’re not entirely sure what the quote means? How can something change and stay the same?

And how many rhetorical questions can one article ask?

Perhaps we can find answers in Expenditure Assistance, a section of Fiscal Communications that has seen its share of change while adhering steadily to solid standards of excellence.

 A tradition of building relationships

In 2007, Statewise profiled the Expenditure Assistance and Audit teams. At the time, Macy Douglas was the expenditure assistance team lead. The finance graduate of UT-Austin was busy building relationships with the state agencies that called her group for guidance.

“We want agencies to feel comfortable calling ahead of time if they question whether a payment is compliant,” she said then. “We always say thank you for calling.”

In the three years since, much has changed. Macy is now supervising manager of the Expenditure Assistance section, one of the sections created when Expenditure Assistance and Audit was divided in two. Expenditure Assistance also took on the task of processing settlement and judgment claims against Texas state government and miscellaneous claims through the statewide financial systems. They also assist agencies in processing 1099 forms.

 Technology meets humanity

But, as the saying suggests, much has stayed the same. Macy and her group still work hard to maintain the standards of excellent customer service that she has demonstrated throughout her time in Fiscal Management. This is especially important as more information is put online via new websites like eXpendit.

Having a comprehensive, convenient Web resource like eXpendit is expected these days. But that convenience carries with it the danger of relying too much on automated systems to communicate with agencies. Douglas says Expenditure Assistance avoids this by keeping the focus on the human touch.

“Maintaining a balance between using technology and keeping a close relationship with our customers has come naturally to our section,” Douglas says. “If agencies can’t find something on the website, we will walk them through finding it. We’d much rather do that than just, say, send them a direct link. That may be faster than spending time on the phone with them, but we want the agencies to be comfortable using the site.”

 Thinking ahead

Expenditure Assistance has good cause for going the digital route. With myriad regulations to track and communicate to agencies, the Web makes sense.

“We’ve really tried to make a big push towards having all our policies and procedures online. The main reason is to make for easier updates and to make it more of a fluid, changing document,” Douglas says. “Not only have we put eXpendit into an online format, we’ve really tried to take the legalese out of the wording and make it clear and easy to understand.”

The technology is relatively new, but the way it’s used is tested and time-honored. As with everything Expenditure Assistance does, the simple goal is to make the customers at state agencies happy.

“With our website, someone who comes in as a new employee should have all the resources they need to figure out the process of state accounting,” Douglas says.

Achieving this requires some planning in advance. Innovation requires preparation.

“Anticipating the agency’s needs prior to making any changes — like a new website — is vital,” Douglas says. “The whole Expenditure Assistance section has been proactive in discussing what things are important to our agencies and where clarification may be needed.”

 Taking care of business

Making huge strides is exciting for forward-thinking sections like Expenditure Assistance. But, as Douglas says, someone still has to answer the phones and run the daily reports.

“We have to continue with our day-to-day duties as we are looking for ways to innovate through new projects,” Douglas says. “The daily tasks have to be accomplished, and they are just as important as coming up with new things. We have a good balance of people in our section who enjoy doing both.”

Looking to the future while holding on to what works now.

Changing, but staying the same.

Expenditure Assistance shows that sometimes, old sayings are still around for a reason.

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