CFOs move from back-office to front lines as agency ‘integrators’ in a crisis

For 30 years, federal chief financial officers have been crunching numbers behind the scenes under the CFO Act.

But a rapid rise in automation and the expansion of the agency C-suite has led to some CFOs rethinking the scope of their duties.

The Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte Consulting, in a recent report on the future of the CFO, heard from dozens of senior federal financial management leaders.

Meanwhile, the federal financial community continues to play a central role in ensuring the continuity of operations for agencies in emergency situations.

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Behind the scenes of last year’s 35-day partial government shutdown, for example, CFOs kept the lights on at their agencies and stretched every appropriated dollar to keep operations going.

And in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, former Office of Management and Budget Controller Dave Mader, the civilian chief strategy officer for federal at Deloitte, said agencies like the IRS, the Small Business Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services have overseen a massive amount of spending on emergency assistance in a short period of time.

“We have never seen the kind of complexity and scale of the assistance programs that the federal government is in the process of implementing, and I think they’re doing the best they can with the resources that they have,” Mader said in an interview.” Whether you’re the IRS or another agency, the scale and speed in which this had to be done is really unprecedented.”

Whether in these emergency scenarios, or in day-to-day operations, CFO shops now work alongside their C-suite colleagues — such as chief human capital officers, chief data officers and chief information officers — to keep the agency mission going.

“The CFO is at a point where they can play the role of the integrator, where they, in collaboration with their peers, bring these disparate datasets and results together in a position that agency leadership an end-to-end-view of how am I actually doing in the mission delivery,” Mader said.

Meanwhile, the rise of automation from agencies like the Treasury Department and the General Services Administration has reduced the need for financial officials to handle rote tasks like copying data from one spreadsheet to another, which allows CFO shops to recruit and reskill employees for more strategic analytical roles.

In addition, CFOs have led the way into the rollout of shared services.

The Treasury Department last year, for example, disbursed $66 billion in payments for the Defense Department last year, an arrangement that allows DoD to focus more on its core military mission.

By the end of fiscal 2022, Treasury expects to disburse nearly half a trillion dollars in payments for the Pentagon, in a step toward making the former a Quality Services Management Office (QSMO) for financial management.

Mader that success story presents an opportunity for OMB, Treasury and the governmentwide CFO to rethink the role of the CFO over the next 15-to-20 years, given the evolution of this work and the rise of automation.

“There will be an emphasis going forward under the President’s Management Agenda and the QSMO concept to continue to sort of expand what could be pushed off to a different provider, that frees up the time and the resources to do that more strategic analysis,”  he said.

While CFOs have called for governmentwide reforms as part of an update to the 30-year old CFO Act, Mader said individual agencies shouldn’t wait to make progress in these areas, especially when it comes to adopting tools with a low barrier to entry like robotic process automation.

“Looking at the future workforce and the future of work is something that if I were a department CFO, I would start doing that now,” Mader said. “So yes, we’d like to have governmentwide solutions, but we also need to have individual action starting now.”