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Viewpoint: A meaningful management agenda for CFOs

Dec. 1, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By HAL STEINBERG   |   Comments

The Association of Government Accountants and Grant Thornton recently released their annual Federal Chief Financial Officer Survey. It explains how President Obama challenged his Cabinet to develop a new management agenda. This would entail a new CFO management agenda, part of which is suggested in the survey. Actually, the CFOs are in a position and capable of fulfilling a more meaningful management agenda.

First, however, one matter should be addressed. The survey states that “transparency and accountability are key elements in the Administration’s management agenda.” It then states that few program managers see value in audits. I would add that probably a few financial managers do not see value in financial audits. This is a real contradiction due, in part, to the fact that, based on their experience, many CFOs do not appreciate the importance of audited financial statements.

In every sector but the federal government, audited financial statements have been accepted as the norm. They are taken as a given, expressly to demonstrate accountability and the existence of reliable financial data. One could argue that financial audits in government are even more important because governments are spending money taken involuntarily from others. It is time to stop the debate about the value of audited financial statements. Clean audit opinions represent the basic blocking and tackling necessary for effective organizations.

The survey also says: “Effective program performance is an agency’s very reason for being, so this remains at the heart of the New CFO Management Agenda” and “More often than not, federal CFOs are charged with overseeing the entire performance management of the agency as a way to ensure that the organization’s results are measured and maximized.” But it also says that “almost two-thirds of CFOs interviewed do not believe that the recently passed Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) Modernization Act has had an impact on their agency.” This dichotomy signifies what the CFO management agenda should be.

Many CFOs also have the performance improvement portfolio. Even if the CFO does not have the performance improvement officer designation, he or she can be a catalyst for advancement of sound performance management activities. As CFOs quoted in the survey stated: “Program offices pay more attention when it comes directly from the CFO, who controls the budget” and “CFOs can validate costs and cost savings.”

The first CFO Council, established in 1992 by the CFO Act, developed a vision for CFOs. It believed the CFO position should focus on more than processing financial transactions and assuring compliance. It postulated that better CFOs would be advisers to senior management; establish partnerships with program managers; and be major players in improving the management of resources. At the risk of generalizing, this expanded role is no longer universally fulfilled.

I propose that the CFO management agenda entail giving CFOs a proactive role in determining, improving and assuring program performance. Doing so would not require more time, only a change in perspective and approach. The Government Performance and Results Act, as amended, already requires the detail work of defining performance measures, determining and reporting performance results, and using performance information to drive performance improvement.

Therefore, CFOs should move beyond a silo whose primary objectives are reducing administrative costs and processing data that assure auditable financial statements. The CFO management agenda should involve CFOs in:

■ Working with their agency’s program managers to establish meaningful outcome and output measures for all programs.

■ Establishing and maintaining the systems that enable performance data to be collected for all measures.

■ Using the data to drive performance improvement, i.e., the already-defined role for the PIO.

■ Complementing the use of Performance.gov to demonstrate accountability for performance results with the use of Agency Financial Reports/Performance and Accountability Reports to show the relationship between performance results and the financial resources expended to achieve those results.

There is another element that should be included in the CFO management agenda. The ability to continue to deliver services in the face of shrinking budgets will require that programs be as cost-effective as possible.

Many CFOs have the budget development function in their agencies. As budget officers, they should demand that program managers specify the costs of producing the outputs for each program in order that preference can be given to the most cost-effective alternatives. I suspect that many program managers cannot provide that information. Hence, another element for the agenda is that CFOs, as the accounting officers, should build the cost accounting systems with which those costs can be ascertained and the budget officers’ requests be met.

None of these pieces for a new CFO management agenda are short-term. Nor will they furnish the low-hanging fruit that makes for good press releases. But they are the kind of CFO management agenda items that can produce major, meaningful and long-lasting results.

Hal Steinberg is technical director for the Association of Government Accountants’ Certificate of Excellence in Accountability Reporting program. He previously was acting controller and deputy controller of the Office of Federal Financial Management and associate director for management in the Office of Management and Budget.

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