LAS VEGAS – The New York City Department of Finance was named the 2013 Pinnacle Award Grand Prize Winner Sunday at the opening general session of the 2013 AFP Annual Conference. Sponsored by Wells Fargo & Company, the Pinnacle Awards have recognized excellence in treasury and finance each year since 1997. The other Pinnacle finalists, Atlas Air and Gilead Sciences, also received their awards at the session.
The NYC Finance Department centralized data for bills and payments and improved speed, accuracy and customer service by creating the first city agency solely responsible for payments expertise, policy and procurement, providing guidance and services to agencies that needed payments services.
The department developed fast, affordable and reliable electronic payments functionality responsible for collecting $49 billion of receipts generated by 29 million payments from 36 individual agencies. It also strengthened regulatory compliance.
“There was an understanding that it was harder for the agencies to receive payments than it should be, and there were a lot of gaps,” Sarah Knapp, an assistant commissioner at the department, told AFP. “If we made it easier for people in those agencies who had a need for payment processing to get to us earlier in the process, it may address a number of issues.”
Knapp noted that finance quickly ran into some significant challenges as it embarked on its ambitious new initiative. The department realized that the agencies as a whole were incredibly behind the times, taking 80 percent of their payments through lockboxes. Additionally, agency employees who had been practicing more modern payment methods were doing so in ways that were not necessarily aligned with external regulations and certain association rules and policies.
Finance completed a lengthy outreach program, meeting with each agency, helping them get comfortable with the idea of anything related to payments going through the department. “We wanted them to know that anything to do with money—payments, receivables—is something that we could be helping them with and they should feel comfortable talking to us about,” Knapp said. “And we would come back to them proactively, when we identified areas where we saw a need for the city be performing at a certain level.”
From the idea stage to completion, the NYC Finance Department’s initiative took about three years. Knapp came over from the mayor’s office in the early days to take it from a concept to a real project. “Although it was clear from the beginning that there was a lot of opportunity to make the city’s payment systems better, it took some time to figure out what the best solution would be,” she said. “We spent about 18 months in that exercise. As of September of 2012, we had our first web payment sites in production and our internal data repository live doing feeds to our general ledger, taking remittance data from the bank and transmitting it back to the agencies.”
While the NYC Finance Department has received very positive feedback from its partners and clients about the project, Knapp noted that being named AFP’s Pinnacle Grand Prize winner has provided both validation and increased motivation for the NYC team. “We knew we had undertaken an ambitious project which was by all accounts considered successful within our environment,” she said. “It is still an altogether different sense of accomplishment to be recognized by an outside group such as AFP and something we did not ever take for granted.”
Knapp also provided some advice to any future Pinnacle hopefuls. “Stay focused on what you are trying to achieve and confident in your ability to make a meaningful change in doing so. All the typical hurdles will inevitably arise, but vision, commitment, and a little bit of momentum as you are getting started can lead to great progress and innovation.”