CFOs Fear New Administration Could Jeopardize Efficiency Initiatives

Survey comes as Trump gives few clues to fate of shared services, risk management.

The government’s chief financial officers expressed “a clear fear that a new administration will either take a different path or slow progress that would diminish the benefits of ongoing [management] initiatives” such as the move to shared services and enterprise risk management, an annual survey found.

Its message on behalf of CFOs: “Don’t make us start over.”

“Perhaps the greatest fear is that work to move agency financial systems to shared services will be abandoned,” said the latest in a 20-year annual survey released on Wednesday by the Association of Government Accountants and Grant Thornton Public Sector. “Sustaining initiatives that show promise would ensure progress toward better financial management practices is not discarded for newer, unproven initiatives.”

Seeking to calm those fears, U.S. Controller Dave Mader, interviewed by Grant Thornton executive Jim Taylor on the survey (conducted before the election), praised the results as “invaluable” to the incoming Trump administration. 

CFO-oriented efficiency initiatives such as shared services, along with implementation of the 2014 DATA Act and enterprise risk management, will be handed off during the transition and may be subjected to “a name change or tweaked a little bit,” he said. “But what we’re doing is good government, which transcends politics, and we’ve done it before.”

Mader noted that the pursuit of expanding shared financial services such as payroll executed by other agencies goes back 8-10 years, to the George W. Bush administration’s lines of business initiative.

Asked whether he’d heard commitments on such efficiency measures from the Trump team, Mader said he had not, speculating that “we won’t hear specifics until February or so.”

The Trump transition “turned out a little different than we thought,” Taylor said. Operating out of New York and Washington, the president elect has been naming individuals to “agency landing teams” (the latest list came out Tuesday.) So far, according to Office of Management and Budget sources, the White House financial staff has received visits from former OMB official and onetime Office of Personnel Management Director Linda Springer, as well as from Trump adviser Dan Kowalski, deputy staff director for the Senate Budget Committee.

The survey results conveyed a desire for the new administration to “clarify the role of the CFO across government” and for the Trump staff to rely on career people when political appointees leave during transition. “The difficulty in finding people with the right skills to perform as a federal CFO combined with the background check and Senate confirmation process makes it highly challenging to keep a full cadre of agency CFOs in place,” the report said.

Respondents to the survey -- which also asked questions about human capital and budget reform -- credited the Obama administration with the most progress on implementing the DATA Act (33 percent called it successful), followed by shared services (32 percent) and risk management under the updated OMB Circular A-123 (26 percent).

Mader said he found the results on shared services “heartening,” noting that “the perception of shared services is that you have to give up everything to a third-party provider.” But “it’s not one-size-fits-all,” he said, and there are a “variety of approaches” using different software platforms, as host agencies such as the Treasury and Interior departments have shown.

The circular’s new emphasis on risk management and the DATA Act has “set the stage for the CFO community to think about the job in a different way,” Mader said. Using lessons from program management risks as applied to finance “frees them up to be more like a strategic adviser to C-Suite” policy leaders. Risk management “is not cookie cutter, but can be tailored to a particular administration,” he added. “I can’t think of a better way” to greet the new administration than to show that by next May, “This is ready.”

Mader, who will leave the White House in January, said he is also optimistic that the 24 major agencies “are in really good shape” for the May 2017 deadline for implementing the DATA Act. “It doesn’t have to be 100 percent, and we have learned lessons about the cost of legacy [software] systems,” he said, praising his partners at the Treasury department for collecting agency spending data in its myriad formats. Congress’s “healthy skepticism is a good thing,” he said.