It’s Been 6-Plus Years Without a Permanent Head of Governmentwide Financial Management
The last presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed controller at the Office of Management and Budget left in January 2017.
It’s been over six years since there’s been a permanent official in charge of governmentwide financial management and former officials say this role is a very important one.
The last permanent controller at the Office of Management and Budget left in January 2017. This role oversees the Office of Federal Financial Management, which develops and implements an administration’s financial management policies and leads the federal chief financial officers’ council. Presidents Trump and Biden both nominated individuals for the position, but to no avail.
In February, the Government Accountability Office said that Acting Controller Deidre Harrison was serving illegally under the law that governs vacancies. Her title now says deputy controller performing the delegated duties of the controller as opposed to acting controller. Harrison, who has been at OMB since June 2014, was made deputy controller in March 2021 and, with no confirmed controller, is the de facto acting controller.
Reiterating their previous statement, an OMB spokesperson said that they “respectfully disagree with GAO’s conclusion,” noting a differing opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued in October.
Former officials told Government Executive that the controller is a crucial role in the federal government and the need for presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed leadership.
Linda Springer, who served as OMB controller from 2003 to 2005 as well as director of the Office of Personnel Management from 2005 to 2008, said her experience with the controller role is that it’s what you make of it. The 1990 CFO Act, which established the position, gave broad responsibilities to be able to adapt to an administration's priorities, such as pandemic relief or the Troubled Asset Relief Program, she said.
The deputy controller, who is usually a senior career official “is very valuable… [with] lots of institutional knowledge; they’ve got lots of authority in their own right,” Springer said. “But I think it’s something that only goes so far when you’re guiding the administration’s priorities and holding other politically appointed CFO’s and confirmed CFO’s accountable.” She also said that when a president nominates a qualified individual for controller, it is Congress’ duty to take it up.
In September 2017, Trump nominated Frederick Nutt, then an OMB senior adviser, for the controller position. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a nomination hearing, but never voted on him. His nomination was returned in January 2019.
In October 2021, Biden tapped Laurel Blatchford, then managing director at the nonprofit Blue Meridian Partners for controller and the committee reported favorably her nomination in December 2021. But then her nomination was returned in January 2022. Biden nominated Blatchford again that month, but the full Senate never voted on her and her nomination was withdrawn in October 2022. Blatchford is now chief implementation officer for the Inflation Reduction Act at the Treasury Department.
During Blatchford’s nomination hearing in November 2021, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., committee chair, said the OMB controller is among the roles “vacant for far too long.”
Mark Reger, deputy controller from 2014 to 2017, said the roles of controller and deputy controller are “important to continued consistency of good financial management inside the government.” Having a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed controller and a career deputy “is a wonderful balance.”
Doug Criscitello, former managing director at Grant Thorton who also worked at OMB, the Small business Administration and the Congressional Budget Office, said this is “an important position to have filled in terms of helping the administration align resources -- financial, technical and analytical -- across the government to enable the accomplishment of the President's program in a cost-effective way.”
Additionally, “as someone who has served as both a career and appointed CFO, senior financial management leaders from across the government have always looked to the controller for inspiration, guidance and thought leadership on important matters facing that community,” said Criscitello. “The position has been more than adequately covered recently by those acting in the role but hopefully a permanent controller can be nominated and confirmed quickly.”
Robert Shea, a government management expert who served as OMB associate director from 2002 to 2008, said a confirmed head will have “much more license to take the Office of Federal Financial Management in a more concrete direction.”
Shea said that Harrison, the deputy controller performing the delegated duties of the controller, is “fantastic” and well respected, but people in and around the government are frustrated that there isn’t a confirmed nominee. Blatchford would have also been great, he said.
OMB didn’t answer Government Executive’s questions about the challenges of not having a permanent controller. The White House proper did not respond for comment.
If and when someone is nominated and confirmed they’re “going to have a short period of time to serve,” Shea said. “So the sooner this can happen, the better.”