SBR: Standard Business Reporting (SBR)

Published on: 03/06/2014
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Standard Business Reporting (SBR) provides governments and businesses with an unequivocal, cost-effective, secure and adaptable method for the exchange of business information between organisations in a reporting chain. It applies international open standards, including XBRL and web services, in a way that enables a high degree of automation within the business reporting process; from data gathering and transfer to validation and processing. It makes the reporting chain more efficient and effective and delivers substantial benefits to all chain participants. The governmental organisations maintain a central gateway based on the principles of service-oriented architecture as described in the SBR blueprint for multi-sided platforms. The generic infrastructure and process components and services are maintained by a shared service center. Decisions are made in a balanced mix of public and public/private forums in accordance with the SBR governance. Currently, SBR accommodates the exchange and processing of tax filings, statistics reports and financial reports on a large scale in the Netherlands. Given its widely acknowledged success, SBR has matured to a ‘best practice’ that can be adopted in many reporting chains around the world.

Policy Context

SBR should be considered in the broader context of business reporting. Almost every organisation is required to report to their stakeholders on their internal/external situation and performance, enabling these stakeholders to determine the level of compliance with social norms, policies, laws, regulations and provisions in contracts.

Business reporting can include areas such as finance, taxation, social security, environment, health, education and labour. Over the last decades, each of these areas has yielded a dedicated reporting chain or even multiple chains within these areas. As a result, organisations now have to deal with various administrative and information reporting processes that can be very different, even though they often require the same or similar data.

In practice, business reporting leans heavily on the records and administration of the reporting organisation. Manual operations and transformations are still the rule rather than the exception. This leads organisations to experience unnecessary administrative burdens or a cost of compliance that is too high. SBR provides the principles, architecture and services for a redesign of business reporting chains to a uniform model based on international open standards. This model assumes a multi-actor redesign in which significant chain participants, such as software vendors and accountants, participate in the implementation and maintenance of the system of agreements across the various reporting chains. It draws on good practices regarding SOA governance, program and project management, as well as the Dutch tradition of inclusive governance.

The policy context in which SBR operates includes, but is not limited to, the European Accounting Directive (2013/34/EU) and the Transparency Directive (2013/50/EU).

Looking from an European perspective, the SBR initiative aligns well with Pillar II – Interoperability & Standards – of the European Digital Agenda. The Digital Agenda identifies improved standard-setting procedures and increased interoperability as the keys to success. More specifically, actions 21 (Propose legislation on ICT interoperability), 22 (Promote standard-setting rules) and 23 (Provide guidance on ICT standardisation and public procurement) of the digital agenda coincide with the steps taken in the SBR programme.

Description of target users and groups

The target group of SBR consists of all participants within any business reporting chain, including businesses, software vendors, intermediaries, banks, governments and regulatory agencies. Each of them can benefit from the application of SBR within a reporting chain, if properly implemented. The availability of (semi-)structured data with clear semantics and a standardised system-to-system interface for filing business reports enables the participants to focus on value-adding activities.

Description of the way to implement the initiative

The implementation of SBR consisted of three phases. In phase one a proof of concept took place to confirm the viability of the SBR methodology and proper functioning of the applicable technology. The proof of concept was supported by three governmental institutions in cooperation with several frontrunners in the private sector. The success of this proof of concept led to a transition to phase two.

The second phase can be characterised by the introduction of a public-private governance to jointly develop the conditions for a large scale implementation of SBR within the relevant business reporting chains. The outcome of this phase was the request of market participants to gradually mandate the use of SBR for these reporting chains.

The third phase focused on the activities surrounding the mandate of SBR within a reporting chain, specifically the chains for filing tax reports to the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration and filing financial statements to the business register of the Chamber of Commerce. The public-private governance has a significant role in these activities as they represent the organisations that are impacted by the mandate.

Considering SBR has a proven track record and a solid architecture, reporting chains that want to adopt SBR can move through the first two phases at an accelerated pace by following the SBR implementation methodology. This methodology starts with a quick-scan and detailed analysis to examine the impact (cost / benefit ) of the proposed redesign and establish a strategy for change. During an experiment the frontrunners in a reporting chain illustrate the usefulness of SBR for their chains. After a positive outcome of the experiment, a period of scaling follows based on a focused and agreed-upon strategy. Depending on the domain, the old reporting chain will be taken out of commission. The SBR implementation methodology can be characterised by its use of indirect process management during the research phase, solid program-management during implementation and the application of proven procedures during maintenance.

Technology solution

Technology is broadly defined within the SBR program and represents practical and theoretical knowledge, skills, procedures, experiences of failure and success and technical tools that are used to solve a problem or perform a specific function in order to achieve a particular goal. The goal here is the operation of an effective and efficient business reporting chain that meets the standards of SBR and ensures interoperability (semantic, syntactic, technical).

SBR uses various international open standards and applies them for:

  1. the method of message specification and message creation, for instance by using XBRL (eXtensible Business Reporting Language);
  2. the manner of message processing, by using BPMN (Business Process Modeling Notation) for process design and the application of shared status codes;
  3. the manner of automation, for instance by using X.509 certificates, TLS, and SOAP web services;

The SBR blueprint for a multisided platform describes both the management structure and the technological architecture as part of a shared service center for business reporting. It is based on a service-oriented architecture in which default (configurable) services are invoked in accordance with a predefined i-process. Messages can be delivered in a system- to-system manner (preferred modality), however, when necessary additional human-to-system interfaces (e.g. portals) are available.

Technology choice: Standards-based technology, Mainly (or only) open standards

Main results, benefits and impacts

The following results can be attributed to SBR:

  • Lowering entry barriers for software vendors in reporting chains, leading to an increase of service providers in the fiscal domain that used to be dominated by a small number of service providers for decades;
  • Accelerating the process of compiling financial reports by intermediaries and businesses, lowering the cost of preparation;
  • Eliminating paper as a format for tax filings and financial statements, enabling organisations to reap the benefits of the use of structured digital data (better quality, lower costs, more timely);
  • Redesigning the back-office of governmental agencies leading to an efficient and effective business process.

The main result of SBR is the large-scale reversal of the business reporting chain. SBR leads to a decompartmentalised way of thinking in the design of reporting chains. This increases the power of reporting parties towards the requesting parties in the reporting chain, while requesting parties have more resources to enforce transparency.

Additionally, the benefits of SBR for all reporting chains relate to further automation of business reporting and utilization of shared services.

The possibilities of further (system- to-system) automation of reporting chains leads to more effective and efficient processing of business information throughout the entire reporting chain. Systems (front-/back-office and across organisations) process business information in a fraction of the time needed by humans. In addition, organisations save time by not having to search for the address and source of the information as well as the conditions for the exchange over and over again. As the relevant parameters are fixed for all reporting chains and the processing is automated, feedback in the form of an acknowledgment or an error message can be provided immediately. Greater efficiency is achieved by eliminating duplicate actions, for example by eliminating redundant and error-prone retyping. The system-to-system automation of the reporting chain also reduces the risk of unauthorized access or modification of messages.

According to the law of economic specialization, parties achieve economies of scale by specializing in the delivery of certain services. These economies of scale are achieved through specialization, concentration of specific knowledge, the reuse of standardized solutions and the execution of large-scale shared processes. The cost of IT can be reduced by centralising systems as a result of the absence of local hardware, lower development costs and lower management costs. As a result, the use of a shared service center in the reporting chain can lead to significant effectiveness and efficiency advantages for all chain participants in the reporting chain. 

Return on investment

Return on investment: Larger than €10,000,000

Track record of sharing

According to an international comparative case study [1], the Netherlands' effort to implement SBR is one of the first implementations conducted on a national scale. Much has been learned and achieved since the start in 2007. From the beginning, all stakeholders recognized the need for knowledge retention and sharing. As a result, the SBR programme has explicitly included mechanisms for knowledge exchange and transfer. These mechanisms resulted in the following track record (not exhaustive):

  1. SBR working groups (national and international): The working groups are designed to facilitate the exchange of knowledge with other parties (governments, businesses, intermediaries, etc.). Dutch SBR officials were often invited by other countries to discuss SBR. These countries include Australia, United States, China, Singapore, United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada and India. A close working relation exist with Australia on SBR related developments.
  2. A comprehensive guidebook on SBR: This book is called “de keten uitgedaagd” and can be purchased in print or downloaded for free via an international publisher (www.iospress.com). To promote international knowledge sharing, an English version of this book is currently under development. The English version of this book will likely be available in September 2014.
  3. Public lectures at Delft University of Technology: The chapters of the book are presented (in Dutch) to a live audience over a period of seven months. These lectures are available for all interested parties and can also be viewed online via www.deketenuitgedaagd.nl.
  4. A two-year university master programme: In order to facilitate in-depth knowledge sharing, the SBR programme supported the initiation of a master programme at the Delft University of Technology. This master – called Compliance Design & Management – is in its third year and the first students have graduated. Students are practitioners from various government agencies, intermediaries, consultancy firms and businesses that operate in reporting chains.
  5. Scientific research and presentation at international conferences:The SBR programme fostered the need to promote collaboration between practitioners and the academic community. Collaboration was expected to result not only in knowledge retention (publications),  but also in knowledge transfer between scholars who were hypothesizing about concepts and methods, and practitioners who were applying these concepts and methods. This interaction between theory and practice helped to enrich, evaluate and extend knowledge on numerous concepts such as governance, institutions, architecture, multi-sided platforms and information assurance. The results include peer reviewed journal papers, conference papers and workshop presentations.

[1] Chen, Y-C. (2012). A comparative study of e-government XBRL implementations: The potential of improving information transparency and efficiency. Government Information Quarterly 29 (2012) 553–563

Lessons learnt

  1. Acknowledge the intricate duality between governance and technology. eGovenment programmes often start out as an policy agenda set by an governance board at a certain point in time (situation A). The policy agenda often focuses on the need to go from situation A to a ‘much improved’ situation B, without paying much attention to the technical details in the B situation. As the transition progresses, effective technical development and decision making requires a governance board that is different from the one in the A situation. The required governance board needs to ‘fit’ with the challenges posed by the technical transition and should include representatives who will be affected in the B situation. Neglecting the need to maintain a fit between governance and technology is a huge pitfall. For a large part, the success of the SBR programme can be attributed to the adaptability of its governance structure that safeguarded a fit between decision-making and the unfolding technical challenges during the transition from A to B.
  2. Recognise that the knowledge and skills required for achieving goals is multi-disciplinary. A lack of knowledge can seriously hurt the chances of success in all sorts of projects, particularly in the eGovernment domain where challenges come from various knowledge disciplines and solutions should be build up across these disciplines. In order to investigate a particular topic from multiple perspectives and to develop the appropriate technology, it is often necessary to combine knowledge from different disciplines. People involved in SBR require knowledge on financial reporting, software development, accountancy, insurance, administrative and fiscal law, auditing, public key infrastructures, credit reporting, information processes, XBRL, taxonomies and public-private partnerships. This does not mean that they are specialists in all fields. However, they must have mastered the basic principles and interrelationships. In 2009 there were only a limited number of people in the Netherlands who were capable of putting SBR it into practice. A greater critical mass was required if this standardisation game was to be played at the appropriate level on a national scale. This led to the commission of the comprehensive guidebook; a knowledge retention project that describes all the aspects of the SBR. One of its offshoots is an executive master curriculum developed by Delft University of Technology. This master educates professionals in all the disciplines needed to master SBR. The first graduates of this curriculum are now working for government agencies using SBR.
  3. Do not expect too much immediately. Frequently, project proposals put much emphasis on the ideal world, whereas the complexity of the road ahead is often understated. The application of IT also gives birth to new problems, such as safeguarding end-to-end confidentiality, integrity, authenticity and availability, all of which are quite difficult to guarantee and very expensive. In short, we can use IT to do things maybe three times better, but if you assume ten times better, you will be disappointed. The SBR programme started out with a very realistic and narrow scope: standardising the system-to-system exchange and processing of business reports (business to government and vice versa). While there were some actors that wanted to transform all sectors of governmental information exchange and tell businesses how to store all their data, the project managers limited the initial scope to financial reporting, a domain with relatively mature software. Moreover, while some pushed for a single report to satisfy the information demand of all governmental agencies, the SBR programme maintained its ‘store once, report many’ principle. The single data push promise held by some actors would simply lead to all kinds of judicial issues on reporting intention, accountability and data reuse by government agencies.
Scope: International, Local (city or municipality), National, Pan-European, Regional (sub-national)