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High-performing Comptroller organizations can add tremendous organizational value beyond just financial transaction processing and audit readiness tasks. By leading in the establishment of key processes, promoting enterprise-wide collaboration, and disciplined financial management culture, they can drastically improve the ability of an organization toachieve performance targets, strengthen the link between financial plans and strategic objectives, and enhance strategic decision-making.
These practices can serve as a road map to improving comptroller organizations:
ESTABLISH A FRAMEWORK TO FORCE PRIORITIZATION
This is much more than knowing what you can buy with current funding levels; it means Comptrollers proactively guide intentional and frequent reviews of perceived requirements to ensure the most critical programs are funded first. These organizations always know what they would spend their next dollar on and why. Clearly communicated requirements prioritization, coming from involved senior leadership collaboration, prevents inefficient funding practices like “first to the trough”, “loudest voice wins”, or “fund the fire of the moment” by having an agreed upon set oforganizational priorities to guide current and future resource allocation.
FOCUS ON ANALYSIS
Our record keeping tasks have long fostered a transactional focus. But in many cases, data automation or process standardization can reduce manhours associated with this area. The number is never “just the number” – it always means something more. What leaders need from Comptrollers is to interpret financial data and reports to help them find the most effective way to use resources to accomplish leadership’s goals for the organization. In many ways,analysisis a deliverable, sometimes more important than the funding itself. Helping solve problems analytically is a highly valued trait engendering confidence that can enable Comptrollersbecometrusted advisors to senior leadership.
INTIMATELY KNOW THEIR DATA
Challenge yourself – how well do you really know your financial data? The best Comptrollers have a detailed understanding of how and where their budget and accounting data come from and how they interrelate. A cursory knowledge of what information your systems generate is not enough; truly knowing your data sources and the limits of their reliability are key to making data-driven decisions. After all, data-driven decisions are only useful if they are based on reliable data and drivers that are well understood. Additionally, nearly all systems have data vulnerabilities –how much of your data is automated? How much human intervention or manipulation is involved, and how could this skew decision-making? These are among the questions Comptrollers must continually ask to avoid decision-making biases based on a limited understanding of their financial data.
INSIST ON TRANSPARENCY/FINANCIAL INTEGRITY
Ensuring financial and budgetary data is understoodby those outside the immediate Comptroller organization communicates prioritization and promotes accountability. Resist the temptation to brief budgets and financial performance data “behind closed doors”; ensure all stakeholders have the opportunity to review and comment onthese processes. Additionally, transparency is a key part of an organization’s overall financial integrity that must include thorough internal controls and rigorous audit readiness procedures. These build both internal and external confidence that the financial data produced is accurate. However, it is important to acknowledge that this transparency has costs. It often requires additional manhours, increased communication, and deliberate steps to increase process times. In the end, however, compromising transparency always costs more via organizational mistrust, suboptimal decisions, or even the potential for fraud.
DEVELOP AND VALUE SOFT SKILLS
This doesn’t come naturally to all, but the best Comptrollers must be good communicators, both personally and organizationally. You can’t get collaborative prioritization or become a trusted advisor without embracing andcontinuingto develop interpersonal skills. Smash the mold of the traditional “bean counter” by practicing the art of compromise, personally and proactively engaging critics, gainingbuy-infor funding strategies through transparent prioritization processes and nurturing professional relationships with customers and organizational peers. Always follow up on service issues brought to your attention. The best Comptroller organizations look for outreach opportunities to share what your organization does with others – you’ll likely get some constructive feedback you wouldn’t have previously received!
DOCUMENT REPEATABLE PROCESSES
Most Comptrollers thrive on order, routine and repeatable processes. The current dynamic of increased employee turnover requires the shortening of learning curves for new employees, reducing service gaps or data errors for customers or consumers of financial data. Documenting, developing, and frequently reviewing such processes also causes stakeholders to critically evaluate steps in detail, creating regular opportunities forprocess improvement. Additionally, many of these repeatable processes are transactional in nature, frequently on a large scale. A single process deviation can have enormous consequences. Furthermore, developing and documenting repeatable tasks can free up personnel to do more analysis – to take a step back and critically examine what the data means, what trends are seen, and how non-financial decisions can positively or negatively impact financial performance.
Changes to existing processes are sometimes feared because we won’t be “in control” of data, lose track of what we think weknowor sacrifice informal power because of our in-depth knowledge of complicated budgetary and accounting rules and processes. But over time, without continual review and analysis, these processes will inherently become inefficient or fail to provide the service or responsiveness needed by leadership or customers in a world of accelerated decision-making. The best Comptrollers embrace an innovative climate where leaders actively support and encourage new methods of service delivery. They are also dynamic, willingly testing new processes orsystems to improve decision-makingand customer response times.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Larry Rice has over 26 years of governmental financial management and leadership experience. As a retired Air Force Colonel, he commanded organizations at multiple levels, as well as serving as the first Comptroller of a $6 billion organization and managing appropriations over $26 billion. Larry also led multiple financial services organizations to provide improved military and travel pay support and conduct Financial Improvement and Audit Readiness testing.