How federal financial people keep their skills up to date

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You might think chief financial officers count beans and leaf through spreadsheets. But their profession needs training, skills development, and innovation as much as anyone else. A project at the Office of Personnel Management sought to ensure financial people stay up to date. For more on the award-winning program, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with OPM’s...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

You might think chief financial officers count beans and leaf through spreadsheets. But their profession needs training, skills development, and innovation as much as anyone else. A project at the Office of Personnel Management sought to ensure financial people stay up to date. For more on the award-winning program, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with OPM’s strategic foresight program analyst, Eric Popiel and the Commerce Department’s deputy chief financial officer, Steve Kunze.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin
Well, tell us about this program. Eric, what did OPM bring to the chief financial officers? Or did they come to you first?

Eric Popiel
So the Chief Financial Officers Council came to OPM first in August of 2019. And they were looking for a different way to look at the future of the financial management workforce. And really be proactive and anticipate what was kind of coming down the pipe. So we met, we decided that we were going to use some foresight methodologies really try and map the future, identify what was going to be most impactful to the Chief Financial Officers Council and the financial management workforce. And then using those methodologies to generate a strategic plan that we can actually implement. So the goal was not just to produce shelfware, the goal was to produce a product that could be implemented by the Chief Financial Officers Council.

Tom Temin
And briefly, what is the foresight methodology? Is that a thing?

Eric Popiel
What it is there’s a foresight framework that was developed at the University of Houston to six part process that goes all the way from framing your challenge down to implementation of your strategic plan. And we walked through that with the Chief Financial Officers Council with about 50 Different volunteers throughout the 18 month project, and just allowed them to be creative, to really think differently to reframe their perspective, and envision what a good positive future would look like for financial management professionals in the federal government.

Tom Temin
Steve, what was the genesis of this from your standpoint? What is it that chief financial officers need to update or upskill, because it’s a profession, that doesn’t change a lot with respect to financial management in the government?

Steve Kunze
You’re correct. From the perspective of financial management, it does not change, but the technology and the information that is needed has been evolving over the past 50 years, and we felt like we needed to basically catch up. And what we were looking at is that we were looking at what students were coming out of college with, what they were studying. And we found that what they were looking at was not necessarily something that we could very easily incorporate into how we were doing it, how we were actually managing financial management in the federal government. So we wanted to take advantage of that change, so that way we could get ahead of the curve, as opposed to playing catch up all the time.

Tom Temin
Yes, because there have been some legislative changes with respect to say, CIOs, and their financial responsibilities. And then they’re supposed to work with the CFOs on a lot of projects. And sometimes the projects that you might have to oversee and help finance, are themselves kind of hard to understand.

Steve Kunze
Part of that it was also to leverage the fact that we found that data and technology we’re going to be through this process that Eric described, we determined that data and technology were the two largest drivers of the changes that we’re having, because with the implementation of the DATA Act that happened few years ago, you know, there’s such a reliance now on information and having the data help inform making decisions, financial decisions, helping the business of each of the departments within the federal government, make good business choices, we needed to ensure that we had access to the data number one and how to utilize it.

And then the second piece, which leverages technology, utilizing the most current software, the most current programs out there, whether it be Python, or R, something that even I am not very familiar with. But I know that my staff has that type of experience, and the students coming out of college and grad school that’s in the finance realm. That’s what they’re used to. And so we didn’t want folks to help us in our recruiting efforts, because we obviously have an aging workforce that we want to make sure that we’re keeping in touch with everything. We want to be able to recruit folks that when they come in and work for us, I don’t want them to say, ‘that’s what my grandfather did. I don’t want to do that I’m used to working with this type of software’. And that would be a retention problem, because they’d come in and then they’d want to leave. And so that’s why.

Tom Temin
1982 PCs came in and people had Lotus 123.

Steve Kunze
That’s what I started on.

Tom Temin
And a lot of agencies still kind of manage that way. It’s not Lotus 123, but it’s still spreadsheets and data analytics and all of these new tools that didn’t even exist back then.

Steve Kunze
Absolutely.

Tom Temin
Even in the mainframe era, you now have to deal with.

Steve Kunze
Right. And part of it is being able to visualize what is that data telling you? Because that’s what the leaders within, you know, not even just the government, even the private sector leaders want to have, they don’t have to sift through tables and charts, they want to have the data visualized for them so it tells them the story for what the data, how it will be used to make their decision. And we needed to make sure that we got that type of skill set into our workforce, and that’s what was built into this whole process. We found things that we needed to focus on. And now we’re actually trying to start executing against it.

Tom Temin
We’re speaking with Steve Kunze, he’s deputy chief financial officer at the Commerce Department. And with Eric Popeil, a strategic foresight program analyst at the Office of Personnel Management. So, Eric, what is the outcome of the project to develop what a course work type of a plan?

Eric Popiel
The outcome that we sought to generate was a visionary document for what the CFO of Council would need to focus on to be ready for the next 10 years. So we wanted to get out of that sort of short termism, and we want them to get thinking about the future and say, we can make choices now to really make our financial management workforce prepared for the future. So the document sort of lays out the seven different focus areas for the financial management community, it also identifies 10 different skills that the financial management professionals will need for the future. And what’s interesting about that is we took those skill sets that were based off of scenario analysis, what the future might look like, took them to OPM, and had OPM rigorously validate. And they came back and said, ‘Well, we can combine these two, but we’ve got the other eight are validate.’ So you actually validated nine of the skills.

Tom Temin
So this is a structured process, it’s not people sitting around a table and saying, ‘This is what we think we’re gonna have to know.’

Eric Popiel
No. So the idea is, there’s a lot of qualitative analysis that goes into this. But on the back end of it, we want to apply the rigor and say, is what we came up with sitting around a table thinking about the future, which is inherently unknowable, is that something that actually resonates. And that’s why we went to OPM to have those skill sets validated, so that we could put them into the skills platform, and not only train the financial management professionals on the skills of today, but also the skills they’ll need to be successful in the future.

Tom Temin
And Steve, what are some of the skills that will be needed that maybe CFOs don’t have now?

Steve Kunze
Those skills would range from as we were talking briefly about earlier, data analytics, data visualization, data presentation, project management, program management, effective presentation skills, the range of those skills wasn’t just pure, technically driven, there were this what we classify as the soft skills, right? So we want to make sure that we’re also capable of having intelligent and influential conversations with leaders on this is what the data is saying. And we can actually present it in a coherent and very empowering way.

Tom Temin
That’s an important point, because I think a lot of people outside of the financial channel in government think you are bean counters. And actually CFOs are not accounting, that’s something separate. And for someone that wants to get something done, but doesn’t know how they’ll pay for it, necessarily, the chief financial officer or one of his or her people can be a great ally in strategically figuring out how to get something done.

Steve Kunze
Absolutely. We look at ourselves, as you know, the financial problem solvers. So you give us the problem set that you’re trying to get to, as I tell my leaders, tell me what your objective is. And then let me help you create a path on how to get there, that will keep you good with all the appropriation law that we need to stay in line with, as well as make sure that you don’t spend more money than you have.

Tom Temin
Yes, nobody likes to do that. Because, you know, it’s not like FTX. Well, I guess they did go to jail after all. So you could go to jail. And Eric, how does this get operationalized? I mean, you’ve identified the vision and the 10 skills, the focus areas, how does it translate into actual say coursework?

Eric Popiel
So that’s the beauty of this is that a lot of times you do a foresight project, you sit around, you dream up this big, strategic document that sits on someone’s desk, and nobody reads it. Well, this one, they took, we presented it to the Chief Financial Officers Council, they approved it, and then we took it to the Office of Management and Budget, they approved an executive steering committee that now has three workgroups underneath that committee that are actually working on implementation. So we recognize that you can’t do everything all at once. And so we’ve got three different workgroups that are focused on projects that are going to lead to fulfilling those strategic goals that we’re looking for.

The final thing I’ll mention on that is that this isn’t a one and done process. And so what I told the CFOs was, you know, we’re going to come back in a couple years, we’re going to look at what you’ve done, we’re going to look at our strategic goals, we’re going to challenge all our assumptions, we’re going to recognize things have happened to us over the past three to four years COVID. And we’re going to look at our scenarios and we’re going to redo sort of that strategic plan doesn’t mean you have to throw it all out, but we can adjust it a little bit as necessary. And we’re going to do that probably every two to three years to make sure that we continue to not only do what we’re supposed to do to be prepared for the future but adjust and adapt as the future happens.

Tom Temin
And this methodology that worked so far successfully with the financial people, can that be replicated across other federal functions?

Eric Popiel
I think absolutely. I think that we’ve demonstrated that we can be successful. And again, it’s not perfect, but it’s definitely moving the CFO Council in the right direction. I think you could do this across the Chief Diversity Officer Council, the CIOs, chief data officers, we could do this across any major community in the federal government and get it done.

Tom Temin
Steve, you can probably imagine the mirror image of this. So all those data whizzes and Scrum developers and you know, kind of high end snot noses coming in, might learn a little bit about finance and what you have to do for a living.

Steve Kunze
This is true.

Tom Temin
That’s me, you don’t have to say it.

Steve Kunze
I would agree, I think the pieces that Eric just talked about are it’s important to recognize that this is something that is an iterative process. It’s not a once and done as he said, right now we have three fairly major projects that we’re working on, one of which has already been recognized in the President’s Management Agenda, as one that we’re hoping to leverage that will expand from the pure finance and the next way that’s mentioned in the PMA is to expand it into the grants assistance community since that’s one of the areas that has been the most impacted recently with the appropriated legislation.

Tom Temin
Sure, and grants spending outstrips procurement spending every year.

Steve Kunze
That is correct.

Tom Temin
So some red territory. All right. Steve Kunze is deputy chief financial officer at the Commerce Department. Thanks so much for joining me.

 

 

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