Numbers people

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"I’m a numbers guy,” former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently told the tech Web site GeekWire. “I really like numbers.”

And we should all be glad he does — because it led him recently to found USAFacts, a nonprofit, nonpartisan clearinghouse for statistical information about everything to do with the United States, from tax revenues and expenditures, to poverty levels, energy production, immigration and much, much more. The information will be presented in a variety of easy-to-use, easy-to-understand formats, from engaging interactive graphs to a report in the style of an SEC 10-K.

Think of it as a dashboard for the entire country.

The reason I bring this up (apart from the fact that it’s a major public service, and pretty fascinating, to boot) is that a number of points related to it should resonate with accountants, who are, after all, the original numbers people.

In an era of fake news, there is a clear need for a source of accurate data that is clearly and impartially presented. It turns out this data has always been there, in a thousand different repositories and a million different formats, but never in a repository or a format that was useful to the American citizenry in a way that we could use it in our decision-making.

If the parallels with your clients aren’t clear yet, let me make them explicit: A very similar situation exists with your clients. Their businesses and their private financial lives throw off a vast array of data that they very often are not able to access (because it’s buried deep in various systems), and which they often couldn’t understand or make use of even if they could access it (because they are not numbers people).

They need you to be their Steve Ballmer — to gather all those data points together in a way that’s meaningful to them. Remember, very often they are not numbers people. The numbers and formats and reports that speak to you may not speak to them. This isn’t a question of dumbing things down (or, at least, not always) — it’s a question of translating, of finding the way to communicate the information in such a way that it’s useful.

Advances in software and integration and reporting tools are going to make this easier and easier to do for those who understand numbers in the first place, and the value to your clients can only grow when you pair the right information, understandably presented, with expert advice on what to do with it — because while Ballmer and USAFacts are quite appropriately not offering any judgements to go along with their data, you are entirely free to do so.

One thing to bear in mind: This is not about compliance. It is not about a financial statement or a tax return. Those formats are not designed to be useful to your clients; they’re designed for regulators and lenders and the like, and many people find them completely impenetrable. Your clients need information presented in ways that make sense to them, and you’re best positioned to draw that information out, format it in a way they’ll understand, and then help them make the most of it. If you need inspiration, head on over to USAFacts.org.

Finally, one last point: USAFacts says that once it documents its processes and controls for how it handles all the data it shares, it plans on having an accounting firm confirm that they effectively guarantee accurate and complete data.

Sounds like a job for some numbers people.

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