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  • Writer's pictureCasey Drew

From Excel to Fit-for-Purpose: Transforming Public Sector Planning and Reporting with Integrated Solutions

The ability to plan and monitor organisational activity and extract meaningful performance insights from vast amounts of information is a challenge for any organisation, especially in the public sector amidst its complexity of services and multi-layered plans and strategies.


Scarred by costly and complicated enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, most councils have resorted to relying on Excel spreadsheets as a key tool for implementing their corporate and strategic planning frameworks. However, despite its widespread use, the evolving needs of organisations and increased scrutiny on budgets and public-sector performance are increasingly highlighting Excel's limitations for this purpose.


In turn, organisations are demanding more sophisticated solutions without the costly overhead of ERP modules—paving the way for purpose-built integrated planning and reporting (IPR) solutions like Envisio to emerge and take centre stage.


Let’s deep dive into a few reasons why.


Limitation: Excel does not support complex, 3D planning structures.

The 3-dimensional nature of an organisations plans and strategies lends itself to immense complexity that Excel does not inherently support. Attempting to develop such a comprehensive repository to meet even the most basic need for accommodating all these plans and their key performance indicators, would require a momentous investment of time and resources. Secondly and arguably the most difficult of all is the additional overhead involved in maintaining the dynamic nature of these plans and ensuring their integrity and auditability over their lifespan.


Solution: Systems that offer a single source of truth and alignment across all organisational activity.

Achieving a holistic view of organisational activity can dramatically improve visibility, help uncover overlaps or conflicts, break down operational siloes, and provide leaders with better clarity to prioritise what’s important and allocate their budgets and resources more effectively.  These benefits can also enhance individual performance by providing individuals with better role clarity and understanding of how their activities contribute to the organisation's broader strategic goals and outcomes, leading to increased accountability and ownership over the long term.

 

Systems that are purpose-built to manage this complex landscape are equipped with specialised features to accommodate multiple intersecting plans and strategies, without compromising their integrity. Mature systems in the market will also include additional tools and features such as cross-linking—that can help streamline the co-contribution of status updates across plans, as well as multi-user and multi-department assignments to enhance the effectiveness of cross-departmental collaboration and dramatically reduce reporting fatigue typically experienced when reporting against multiple plans and strategies.


At Cloncurry, transitioning from spreadsheets to Envisio immediately provided us with visibility into areas of our Operational Plan that lacked alignment with our Corporate Plan. It became clear that several strategies were not being addressed due to unplanned or unbudgeted activities. While the work might have been done, we lacked the visibility and confidence to ensure these objectives were met. - Andrew Hodson, Governance and Risk Coordinator - Cloncurry Shire Council

Limitation: Excel is inadequate for large-scale collaboration, leading to version control issues, data conflicts, outdated information, and infrequent reporting cycles.

Spreadsheets are not efficient at managing large-scale collaboration—making it less than suitable for organisations to use in capturing and reporting both real-time and continuous progress updates against their activities. As Excel’s design is not suited to multi-user collaboration at an enterprise level and lacks the effectiveness to support these processes, simultaneous edits are hugely problematic and can often lead to version control issues, data conflicts, and loss of integrity. Consequently, this results in delays and outdated information, and a loss of stakeholder interest and engagement in the reporting process.

 

Due to the manual data entry involved and level of coordination and oversight to required prevent such issues, organisations often adopt retrospective and infrequent reporting cycles (e.g. quarterly) further limiting their visibility of up-to-date information to support their decision-making processes. These limitations are further evident when tracking and consolidating historical data to support end-of-period reporting.

 

Despite this, Excel is still widely used within the public sector. Research conducted by Redman Solutions has revealed that the burden of data manipulation, and extensive time spent validating and coordinating updates was one of the biggest challenges and sources of stress reported by governance teams and IPR practitioners—contributing to a turnover and shortage of experienced planners in the sector. This emphasises the need for better solutions and a shift from manual time-consuming processes to built-in features offered by IPR solutions that help automate tedious tasks and facilitate more efficient and accurate reporting processes.


Solution: Systems that support simultaneous updates and real-time progress tracking, with automated features to streamline reminders and notifications.

Dedicated IPR solutions are purposefully designed to cater to the needs of high-collaborative and multi-user environments and incorporate many standard features to accommodate simultaneous updates and continuous historical progress tracking. This eliminates the need for retrospective data entry and aids in keeping stakeholders engaged with accurate and current information and a better understanding of long-term progress. Additionally, with built-in dashboards, reminders, notifications, and other automated features for ensuring visibility, auditability and consistency of the information captured, governance teams and practitioners are also freed up to focus on higher-value activities.


Limitation: Excel struggles with efficiently handling large datasets and creating sophisticated reports, rendering the need for advanced skills and additional tools.

The benefits of capturing all that real-time data reveal the next challenge – efficiently handling all this information and supporting users to easily make sense of it and present it in a way that provides both meaning and critical insights essential to informed decision-making. This requires the ability to blend quantitative and qualitative information to deliver a clear picture into how activities are tracking toward planned goals, outcomes and KPIs. In reality, this is a huge burden for most people. To put this into practice, the process must be easy and streamlined to achieve for the untrained user.

 

While Excel offers robust analytical tools, it struggles with handling large datasets efficiently and scaling to the level needed for a comprehensive view of organisational performance. As the volume of data grows, so does the frustration of navigating through sluggish spreadsheets and the looming fear of potential crashes. The demands of creating complex reports and dashboards then amplifies this stress, requiring advanced skills that many users lack. Maintaining these visualisations also becomes a tedious chore, that is prone to errors and only adds to the mounting pressure. This often necessitates additional tack-on applications and business intelligence tools to achieve such outputs, further compounding the issue with reliance on already overburdened staff and additional costs.

 

This pain is particularly acute for smaller/rural councils, trapped on the wrong side of a divide. While larger counterparts navigate advanced analytical and BI tools with ease and a large resource pool, smaller organisations are left clinging to outdated software, struggling to keep up. The emotional toll of this disparity is palpable, as the gap widens between those empowered by technology and those left behind, feeling helpless and overwhelmed in their reliance on Excel, Word and the limited reporting capability of their enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

An example of a strategic plan in excel, compared to purpose-built IPR solutions

Solution: Systems that can automate and streamline data capture and offer user-friendly visualisation tools to produce meaningful reports and dashboards.

To bridge this gap, systems that simplify and automate data capture and offer intuitive visualisation tools are essential. Investing in dedicated IPR solutions can transform the way this data is managed and reported, and many of these solutions come with powerful analytical and visualisation tools, enabling seamless administration of large datasets and creation of impactful reports and dashboards illustrate performance.


User-friendly interfaces and automated integration capabilities make these tools accessible to all, reducing the need for additional applications and easing the burden on resources. This empowers users at all levels to manage their data effortlessly and integrate valuable insights into key decision-making processes. However, the capabilities of these solutions can vary widely, including differences in integration, customisation, and data visualisation methods. Therefore careful research, evaluation and partnering with the right implementation expert who understands your specific needs are essential to choosing the right tool.


In summary...

Our IPR Insights Report dives into more research conducted in this space, and highlights the importance of investing in the right solutions to support these processes. Purpose built IPR solutions can provide councils with easy, cost-effective access to specialised tools to reduce the reliance on spreadsheets without the overhead of more complex ERP modules. These tools make it increasingly simple for staff and stakeholders to engage with reporting, and have oversight across multiple layers of planning and reporting—allowing councils to reduce inefficiencies, improve engagement and foster better transparency over their performance. This helps councils to achieve more with limited resources and better serve their communities.

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