CFOs dropped ‘business as usual’ in overseeing COVID-19 spending

Congress approved trillions of dollars in emergency spending since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s fallen on chief financial officers to oversee the disbursement of this spending, while also keeping an eye on day-to-day agency operations.

Of the $2.6 trillion in emergency pandemic spending Congress authorized last March and April, federal agencies received over $82 billion for program administration and oversight.

To get a sense of the level of disruption agency CFOs have overcome for nearly a year, the Association of Government Accountants and Grant Thornton interviewed a dozen CFOs and deputy CFOs in the first of a series of surveys they will release later this year.

CFO respondents said their offices, in some cases, moved travel services staff to support acquisition in the early stages of the pandemic, while others have relied on investments in data analytics to oversee emergency pandemic spending.

Across the board, however, agencies have had to manage a massive influx of funds that’s expected to be disbursed quickly.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, received $12.5 billion in CARES Act funding last year, about a quarter of its annual budget.

Irv Dennis, HUD’s former CFO under the Trump administration, said his office spent about three or four weeks adjusting to videoconference meetings once mandatory telework went into effect.

After that, he said his office was back to running at “100% efficiency,” and met its goal of producing clean financial statements of its emergency pandemic spending.

“I told our team and I told HUD we cannot let COVID be an excuse for not meeting our goals,” Dennis said in an AGA webinar earlier this month.

Doug Criscitello, a former CFO at HUD and the Small Business Administration, now a managing director at Grant Thornton, told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin that agencies in charge of COVID-19 spending face a “delicate balancing act,” making both speed and oversight top priorities.

“That’s a real challenge for CFOs, to meet that mandate, yet still comply with all of the internal controls that are in place for a very good reason to ensure that taxpayer dollars are protected and not squandered,” Criscitello said.

Ann Ebberts, AGA’s chief executive officer, told the Federal Drive that CFOs in the early months of the pandemic “realized this could not be business as usual,” and used agency data to adjust spending priorities and inform day-to-day decision-making.

“They’ve got some challenges, but they’ve stepped up, they’re being collaborative, they’re working across the C-suite to make sure that the priorities are right, that they’re working with the best interests of the American people and making sure that the funds are applied where they need to be applied,” Ebberts said.

Some of the CFOs who responded to the survey said the long-term effects of the pandemic will likely include increased telework and a decline in office space.

Dennis said he expects “dramatic changes” in office space needs for agencies, and that post-pandemic, supervisors will have to reevaluate the criteria for which employees need to be in the office — and when.

“The business world and government is going to have to rethink through what those criteria are, and then adjust the real estate accordingly,” Dennis said.

Agency CFOs — in many cases right now senior career employees serving in an acting capacity — have also helped incoming political appointees get up to speed with how the agency operates.

CFOs at this moment, Criscitello said, serve not only as strategic advisers to political appointees with an agenda for the next few years, but also help them navigate short-term issues.

“Some of them are fairly mundane — about furnishing an office, or do you travel first-class or coach when you’re flying? Little things like that can become mini-scandals in an agency if the leadership team isn’t working closely with the CFO to understand the arcane rules of how federal monies can be expended.”

“Part of that role, in being a budget officer or a staffer in an OCFO, is to speak truth to power and to not be afraid to say no,” he added.

Career budget officials will also keep political appointees in the loop on the state of the agency’s budget. The Biden administration is expected to release its “skinny” budget document for fiscal 2022 in the coming months.

“When new folks come in, they need to understand that they’re jumping on board a train that’s already moving down the track,” Criscitello said.

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