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Glenn Hegar  ·  Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts

‘SIRS: The Next Generation’
Reports you depend on will ‘live long and prosper’ on the new FMQuery – SIRS platform

Originally Published in Statewise Winter 2008

by Joni Sager

In 1997, data from the Uniform Statewide Accounting System (USAS) boldly went where no Texas state financial data had gone before — into cyberspace. The State Government Accounting Internet Reporting System (SIRS) was at the helm of Internet exploration for the transfer of this complex and secure information.

Now SIRS is transitioning from old technology to new. The upcoming debut of FMQuery–SIRS means state agencies and universities can continue to rely on SIRS reports, even though the original technology needs to be replaced.

Star Trek metaphor apt

“This truly is the next generation of SIRS,” says Hank Robinson. “It has to be upgraded since the original technology is becoming obsolete. The presentation is going to be the same — it's just that there will be a different platform and database for the information.”

Robinson is widely heralded as the father of SIRS. His retirement from the Fiscal Management Division has segued into a position as an accountant at the Texas Department of State Health Services, where he sees the value of SIRS as an end user.

He is quick to share credit for SIRS. “In 1995, people were sticking their toes in the water of the Internet, and Stuart Greenfield had the idea for a proof of concept to see if users could get USAS reports they trigger themselves,” he says.

Pre-SIRS, if people needed more than what was included in the canned USAS reports, they requested a special run from the ad hoc reporting group or their appropriation control officer or financial reporting analyst. Then they had to wait for the report to be delivered via interagency or regular mail.

The lag time could be a week or more, and the process was not an effective use of resources in the Comptroller’s office.

“It was proved that something like SIRS could be done, and there was reason to do it,” Robinson continues. “Bruce Holmstrom and I targeted the 10 most frequently requested financial reports to start. Our team designed, and in some cases built, the database, wrote the queries and back-end processing, and then created the user interface.”

Volvo, not Vulcan

This was uncharted territory. The SIRS reports were built using IBM’s DB2 relational database and Net.Data macro language, as well as REXX, SQL and HTML. “We worked with IBM and had conference calls with Volvo, Boeing, Kodak and General Motors to discuss how to do what we wanted to do — us this little ol’ state agency working with these big companies,” Robinson says.

He recalls that the development of SIRS had its share of turbulence. “Once we figured out how to do the security, got the application working, tested it with all kinds of agencies and scenarios, and got the bugs out, we ran into problems because not everyone was using the same platform, operating system or browser. Something one user could do with no problem, another user couldn’t.”

These were the days before browser software matured. “In the beginning, we had to make sure that SIRS worked with the lowest-level browser that was out there, and we couldn’t use HTML features like frames,” Robinson says. “We wanted it to run efficiently so people's browsers did not time out waiting for data or have insufficient storage. Many agencies relied on dial-up access.”

Once a report is generated, users can view and print the results or download the data into a spreadsheet program such as Microsoft Excel. “The comma-separated values option really took off because the agencies could slice and dice the data on their own,” he says. “Agencies also really liked that SIRS gave them access to data through the previous night.”

To SIRS, with like

Agencies still really like SIRS — to the tune of running 1,000 reports a day.

Reports with data from USAS have been improved and expanded over the years to meet user needs, including a section on vendor payments. Reports with personnel data from the Uniform Statewide Payroll/Personnel System were added in 2002. There are now 109 reports available, and if none of them exactly fits the bill, ad hoc reports can still be requested.

SIRS will still be “point and click” simple to use when it moves to the FMQuery platform in Business Objects. In fact, FMQuery – SIRS will be enhanced to offer you drop-down menus and more convenient report groupings. If you have access to SIRS, you will be able to access the same reports in FMQuery.

Which is not to say that the transfer has been Star Trek transporter easy. “SIRS features complicated nested queries run against a lot of data,” Robinson says. “As I tell agencies when they are downloading data, think about pushing mashed potatoes through a straw. Are you trying to do a cup of potatoes, or are you trying to do 50 pounds? How big is the straw? If you are going to drop it over here into a bowl, how big is the bowl? There are those kinds of things to consider. SIRS is like a field of potatoes that has to go out statewide.”

Make it so

Ensuring that agencies can access the SIRS reports they need has been a priority for Fiscal Management. FMQuery also provides secure yet broad analytical access to payroll data. In the future, FMQuery will offer the same type of analytical access to create ad hoc reports from the USAS transaction history, general ledger and appropriation table extracts. Additional information from the payroll systems for personnel-related data such as date of hire and insurance selection will also be available.

Robinson is upbeat about the upcoming upgrades. “The USAS ad hoc reporting feature that will be added to FMQuery will meet the needs of people who really want to massage the data.”

Glenn Hegar
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
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