Chief Financial Officers Lament Decline in Government Services

Chief financial officers who today are leading a “declining, dispirited workforce” are able to deliver increasingly less in government services and face ongoing tension between tight resources and expanded reporting requirements, a survey found.

The Obama administration’s still-unfolding second-term management agenda is being looked to for a “clear and consistent framework” that helps CFOs set priorities and accomplish important goals, according to the 18th annual federal CFO Survey conducted by the Association of Government Accountants in partnership with Grant Thornton LLP.

Today’s CFOs must function at a time of the shutdown, sequestration, a retirement wave and a pay freeze, survey analysts noted. “It’s depressing to meet and talk to them about the number of people we’re losing while the demands are greater-- many wonder if they will be the last one to turn out the lights,” said Relmond Van Daniker, the AGA’s executive director, at a briefing for reporters. Among young people educated to be federal auditors, he added, “the analytical ability just isn’t there.”

The survey included 100 interviews and 180 self-selected responses from CFOs and their deputies and underlings. Its release and a planned presentation to Congress were delayed by the government shutdown -- originally, the press briefing was to feature Deputy Comptroller Norman Dong and Fiscal Assistant Treasury Secretary Richard Gregg.

The 2009 Recovery Act and the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act imposed many transparency and accountability tasks on CFOs, and though most rose to the occasion, the analysts said, the “opposing forces” of budget cuts and new reporting requirements have hampered responsiveness. The clash means that, as the report’s title puts it, “something’s gotta give.” For example, implementation of performance measures under GPRA has had a large impact on only 8 percent of respondents, and a small impact on 35 percent, the survey found.

“CFOs want a new management agenda to improve and sustain agency performance,” said Denise Lippuner, a partner with Grant Thornton LLP. Even though all departments except Defense and Homeland Security have received clean audits, “CFOs feel there’s a possibility they could lose clean audits tomorrow.”

She said CFOs also face a challenge in implementing the enterprise risk management popular in the private sector because “the departments are very stovepiped,” and because the benefits of spending money on risk management are “hard to quantify.” Enterprise risk management is not mandated, so it’s viewed as “nice to have, not must-have,” she added.

Savings efforts such as President Obama’s Campaign to Cut Waste, said Robert Shea, a former Office of Management and Budget official now a principal with Grant Thornton, “focus on the menial” such as across-the-board cuts in training and conferences. What is needed, he said, is “mature cost management capability that gives you tools to make trade-offs about what the agency can stop doing.”

The AGA’s Van Daniker acknowledged that management reforms in pursuit of transparency and accountability are not always a high priority in Congress, where budget decisions are often political and parochial. “We must communicate to people who actually vote,” he said, using “citizen-centered reports” rather than “buzzwords that go in one ear and out the other. People outside the [Washington] Beltway don’t know what’s going on and don’t care.”

The government, he said, may no longer “do more with less but do less with less. We continue to kick the can down the road, but we will reach the point where we just can’t do it.”

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