The lack of presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed leaders in the federal government gives career civil servants the opportunity to take risks to disrupt the culture, workforce and priorities of their agencies, according to a recent survey co-produced by the Association of Government Accountants and Grant Thornton.
“The time is right for career staff to challenge the status quo and offer up reforms that have been pondered but may not have been voiced previously,” the survey said. “The current situation represents real opportunity for career civil servants to develop strategic plans before most political appointees are in place. A willingness to embrace disruption could expedite adoption of efficient technologies and innovations, such as shared services.”
The survey in particular called out the opportunities for chief financial officers to use the transition to tackle far-reaching issues in their agencies.
“As politically appointed positions remain vacant, CFOs and acting CFOs risk working toward goals that may change once political appointees are in place. The current environment presents CFOs and acting CFOs a unique opportunity to use their vast career experience to guide their organizations to prioritize and tackle issues that transcend multiple administrations, all while juggling the new leadership demands for tremendous change,” the survey said.
Some agency CFOs also see the executive order “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch” ― which directs the director of the Office of Management and Budget to propose a plan for reorganizing and streamlining agencies ― as the “freedom to make long-desired improvements.”
However, that lack of leadership can add to an agency’s challenges as much as create opportunities. The two most cited challenges for government CFOs were budget uncertainty and human capital issues.
“These increased challenges result from a gap in executive leadership, as political appointees have been slow to be appointed or confirmed; while the incoming administration has identified new initiatives such as technological advances in cloud and cybersecurity services, maintaining the current number of federal employees and government reorganization,” the survey said.
Leadership uncertainty can also conversely paralyze innovation, as survey respondents pointed out that “career civil servants simply are not going to attempt bold reorganizations on their own for fear of reprisals.”
The survey notes that many CFOs are behind in leveraging the “avalanche” of data at their disposal, as data analytics can help establish CFOs as strategic advisers for agency policy.
“CFOs are faced with two alternatives: 1) keep their heads down and weather the current disruption; or 2) leverage the opportunity for disruption to make lasting improvements to government and agency structures and operations.”