Bureau of the Fiscal Service sees workforce challenges amid push to modernize payments

The Treasury Department Bureau of the Fiscal Service looks to print millions of fewer paper checks by 2020 as part of an agenda it’s put forward to modernize the way it disperses payments, collects debts and reports financial data.

But what happens to the employees hired decades ago, who used to print checks?

Dave Lebryk, Treasury’s fiscal assistant secretary, said government still has a long way to go in reskilling the federal workforce for the jobs of the future, especially as emerging technology accelerates the rate of change.

“We don’t have an education system or a training system within the federal government that says what you did 10 years ago is no longer as relevant as it’s going to be tomorrow, and you need to make that adjustment,” Lebryk said Feb. 28 at the Association of Government Accountants National Leadership Conference.

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According to the bureau’s 2018 progress statement, which it released last month, it will print 40 million paper checks by 2020 – more than a 30 percent decrease from the number of checks it printed in 2016.

Instead, the bureau plans to issue more electronic payments and prepaid debit cards to Americans without bank accounts. The effort aims to serve one of the President’s Management Agenda cross-agency priority (CAP) goals focused on “getting payments right.”

Between a recent executive order prioritizing artificial intelligence and the PMA’s mandate to shift federal employees from low-value to high-value work, the Trump administration has placed an increasing emphasis on the role of emerging technology in government.

Some tools, such as robotic process automation, have at the pilot-program phase helped reduce labor hours on rote tasks at agencies.

When the bureau introduced RPA to its shared services staff, Lebryk said the employees welcomed the technology, rather than viewing it as a threat to their jobs.

“We went in and actually worked with employees and talked about what it meant, and they’re the most enthusiastic champions that we have now,” he said. “They didn’t view it as threatening, they viewed it as enhancing.”

Data ‘forces accountability’ in government

Building the workforce of the future also requires promoting a data-centric culture in government.

“We’ve got more data floating around than we’ve ever had, and I think there’s so much of a lack of understanding of data, that we can’t even have discussions about anything, which means no one’s going to be held accountable,” said Tim Soltis, the deputy controller at the Office of Management and Budget. “People take isolated incidents and say, ‘That’s the rule.’”

Going forward, Soltis said financial agencies’ work in data-driven decision-making “forces accountability” and helps pave the way for evidence-based policy.

“There’s a role for everyone to make decisions based on data, not their gut feel or what they think should happen. And I think that’s the best way to drive accountability — having fact-based evidence to say, ‘OK, here are your choices, A or B, and here’s the data that supports it. Here are the pros and cons of them,’” he said.

President Donald Trump in January signed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, which requires agencies to make their non-sensitive data available to the public in machine-readable formats by default.

The bill also contains the OPEN Government Data Act, which requires CFO Act agencies to appoint chief data officers to oversee their inventory of data and determine how best to share that data out to the public.

A handful of agencies — including the Defense Department, Air Force, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — already have chief data officers.

However, Soltis said the growth of the “C-suite” has outpaced what the CFO Act originally envisioned.

“I think it’s proliferated to the point that it’s out of control in some cases,” Soltis said.

Instead, agencies that have career undersecretaries for management, he added, have a better management structure to ensure long-term projects stay on track.

“Otherwise, you have co-equals and it’s very difficult to align the efforts. That’s what we’re finding with trying to do our transformation strategy: If everyone has their own priorities, you’re never going to finish anything,” Soltis said.

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