I’ve just finished my first solo Board meeting. Our law library is overseen by a Board of Trustees that meets monthly. My first meeting I was just a wallflower. This time, I had to actually do a bit of heavy lifting. This included an attempt to help give some perspective on our financial income.
I use the word “solo” loosely. Senior staff were at the meeting and I was grateful to be able to delegate in areas where I’m still ignorant. Hopefully those areas will become fewer over time! But it was my name on the agenda for the first time. And, as those of you who report to a public-facing governance board know, those documents are also public-facing.
This isn’t new – when you work at a regulator, they are public-facing in the same way – but library operations were often submerged in larger reports. It means that I’m a bit cautious about what I share and yet it’s important to make sure the information we share is understandable.
One thing that I heard early on, at the first Board meeting, was what sounded like uncertainty around variances in income.
To Lead is To Listen
It is one thing to hear and another to listen. This can be particularly true if you are a point person in a governance meeting. It is why it’s always worth doing homework before you go into a meeting. And, in my case, have people who I can lean on for their expertise. You want to be able to interact with the governance board so that they are able to get the information they need to fulfill their role.
At the same time, you need to be listening to what’s behind the questions. Sometimes it’s obvious: a number in one column has changed more than in the past, a project has suddenly arisen or suddenly come to a halt. Those are generally easy to answer and also easy to anticipate or understand the reason for the question.
It can be harder when someone is asking a more abstract question. This is particularly true with courthouse library financials. In California, our primary income (and practically sole) source is court filing fees. When we budget, we base our budget on estimates of how many cases are going to be filed in the county courts less the filing fee waivers the courts may grant. Short of a time machine, there’s no real way to know what those will be until the cases have been filed and the waivers granted.
Weirdly, the California courts site links to Findlaw for the legislative guidance on fee waivers, which is freely available on the Legislature’s own site. I searched another California code section and a Findlaw link appeared first. Maybe the only reason is SEO.
A typical approach then is to come up with a number and then divide by 12 to get your monthly income expectations. Unlike a person’s salary paid out 26 times a year in even amounts, there will be filing fee income fluctuations, but you won’t know what those are.
This uncertainty can be exacerbated by how you report your numbers. It’s standard practice to report current year against previous year to create a comparison. If you are only looking at one year’s numbers, you don’t have any perspective. That perspective is critical make good estimates of what’s likely to happen in uncertain, but repeating, circumstances.
There are a couple of ways to try to handle that. The first is to change your budget to account for variances in your financial reporting. For example, if you expect $1,200 in income per year, you might plan your budget at $100 per month. But your law library has a license that comes due in June that is $1000. So you know that, in January to May, you will look like you are under-spending your budget. And in June, you’ll shoot far over that $100 budgeted for June.
See what I mean. This first graphic shows a $1,200 budget with each month budgeted at $100 of expenses, and a $1,000 actual expense in June.
This one is the same income but the budget has been written so that the monthly expenses are closer to what the actual expenses are expected to be ($1,200 in income, $18 a month in expenses except for the $1,000 expense in June).
You can see how this creates uncertainty in your reporting. That can create uncertainty for a governance board who doesn’t spend as much time with the numbers as you do. So when you know that there are regular variances in your income and expense flows, the more you can tailor them to reality the better. You can’t achieve the sort of symmetry reflected in the charts above, but you can approximate them.
A Filing Fee Comparison
All of this post was sparked by a board member’s comment about our filing fees. They were attempting to get that perspective that can be so hard just looking at numbers. In particular, they were struggling with something that I was struggling with: the numbers are low this month but what does that mean?
This was the type of chart we were all looking at:
In a sense, this is a completely understandable comparative table. You can see year-to-date filing fee income and contrast it to last year. It’s great for knowing where we are today. But I wasn’t able to use it to understand where we’d be in 4 months.
A current vs. past year perspective is better than looking at just this year. If you can step even further back, I think you can see even better. This is particularly true if you’ve just been through a pandemic and you may have a year or two of data that may not reflect your current pattern.
You can use visualizations to help yourself understand your own data. If you find it useful, you can then share it with your governance board to help them visualize it too. I wouldn’t recommend using the same visualizations every meeting. The data will change, the questions will change, and you will want to find the right way to understand.
One specific time I will always look for a visualization is the first time I’m dealing with data. Once I’ve seen a chart or data set repeatedly, I can see it through a more educated lens. Governance boards may or may not ever get to that level of comfort, though, so it’s useful to listen if they are having questions that suggest they aren’t visualizing the data clearly.
In this case, I put the last 10 years of our filing fee data into Excel and played with some charts. I ended up on the scatter point plot to show that there are, in fact, trends in our filing fee data, year over year. In particular, we know that November and February are often lower than other months.
This immediately made more sense to me than the chart and, with the historic data, gave me a better sense of how good or bad our filing fee numbers are. They are definitely toward the lower end. But while the February numbers were the lowest, it was actually the January and December ones that were both higher and lower than expected.
Note, if you do a scatter chart like this, you won’t get text labels on the bottom axis. It’s a numbers chart. So I had to add labels for the months at the bottom. I also made the present year a connected line for ease of reading, and supersized the dots (with a slight transparency) to make them more readable too.
This chart helped me with my own perceptions of our income. If you focus on the numbers, you would naturally focus on the decline from month to month. This can create a perception of loss, of decline generally. So a visualization can help you to get greater perspective, so that you can see the forest for the trees.
I also shared this one, which frankly is a greater concern and is even harder to perceive by merely looking at year-to-year data. You can see there was a slight upward drift in filing fees prior to the pandemic. It’s too early to know if that upward trend will restart. But our staff costs, in one of the cities in the U.S. with the highest cost of living, are going to create substantial upward pressure.
As I say, the numbers are the numbers. My visualizations aren’t saying anything different from our financials. Anyone with time could understand the numbers the same way. But how people understand information can change how they perceive the reality they describe. Numbers by themselves may not be the best way to express the story that those numbers tell. That’s my job, as the law library director, to make sure those stories are told.
It means we can attempt a couple of things that are not necessarily easy. One is to use income variances to try to better guess income. This would mean that we’d estimate an annual income but the monthly estimates would vary as well to reflect historical patterns. Another is to continue to run visualizations to see what other patterns we see: in income, in expenses generally, in subdivisions of expenses (personnel, collection, etc.) to help create certainty around the budget numbers.
We’re not out of the woods for this fiscal year by any means, but I have a much higher degree of comfort – reinforced by talking through these slides – about where we are.