Progress of federal financial management: the CFO Act, Government Management Reform Act, and beyond.
Successful federal financial management has been a long-running governmental goal throughout many administrations. The Bush, Sr. administration established the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990, the first financial management legislation with a governmental focus since 1950. The Bill Clinton administration amended Bush's act with the Government Management Reform Act in 1994, further creating a focus on the need for improvement within the federal government financial domain. There has not been a major piece of federal financial management legislation since Clinton's administration. With the new administration emphasizing "change", this paper will identify the progress made in federal financial management, specifically since the Chief Financial Officers Act and the Government Management Reform Act, and identify areas that still need attention.
There has been a dramatic spike in the publication of information regarding the current state of federal financial management and opinions about what the next steps should be in the coming years. This spike is most likely caused by the fifteenth anniversary of the Government Management Reform Act as well as the feeling of "change" permeating throughout the government due to the historical administration change that occurred at the beginning of this year.
PROGRESS MADE AND OPINIONS ABOUT FUTURE
Most of the published research in the area addresses how far financial management has come since 1990. Many of the authors provide their opinion about where the focus should be in the future. Laine and Kreyche suggest that modifying the U.S. Standard General Ledger, methods for loan accounting, financial reporting and internal controls are essential for improving federal financial management (Laine & Kreyche, 2005). Steinberg suggests that governing bodies must "consolidate the [...] statutes and circulars" since changes over the years were made incrementally. This is in addition to other major changes mentioned such as reformatting the general accounting methods used and changing the entire budget structure, just to name a few (Steinberg, 2006). Peters focused her suggestions on the two largest problem areas preventing the government-wide financial statements from obtaining an unqualified opinion: the Department of Defense and the Homeland Security Department (Peters, 2008). Fadairo, Williams, Trotman, and Onyekelu-Eze offered their opinion that the previous financial management legislation had, in fact, achieved its goals, meticulously offering evidence to support their claim (Fadairo, Trotman & Onyekelu-Eze, 2008).
Many current articles attempt to address problems surfacing in federal financial management and offer suggestions to alleviate them. Steinhoff and Price attempt to define what it means for a governmental agency to be performing well when it comes to federal financial management, by offering criteria and questions for CFOs to ask themselves in order to shed light on where they are perhaps neglecting their agency (Steinhoff & Price, 2009). Aguilera, Holmberg, and Gregory discuss the government's creation of the Department of Defense's CFO Academy as a response to the growing responsibilities thrust upon governmental financial executives and managers (Aguilera, Holmberg & Gregory, 2009). The Academy aims at training and preparing "middle and senior level members of government's financial management community" (Aguilera, Holmberg & Gregory, 2009). Allen offers a plea with taxpaying citizens to take the initiative and pay attention to annual reports released from the government and government agencies, citing the corporate bailouts and growing deficits as creating an even greater need for accountability (Allen, 2009). Lastly, Steinberg summarizes a full review he submitted to the Association of Government Accountants (AGA) regarded the "pilot program" of alternative reports that agencies can submit, attempting to deduce whether the new reports increase transparency and accountability while eliminating unnecessary information and time-consuming reports (Steinberg, 2009). This paper also attempts to address problems in federal financial management and offer opinions about how to reduce those issues.
AGA CFO ANNUAL SURVEYS
One of the most important tools available to gauge the current and future needs of federal financial management is the annual survey conducted by the AGA with Grant Thorton. The respondents are all federal financial management executives and managers, thus allowing the survey to shed light on the problems faced by these governmental employees. A few journal articles have taken the results of this survey and analyzed what they mean for the governmental accounting and finance community. However, only three surveys have had published articles associated with them: 1996 (Steininger, Donlon and Stagg, 1997), 2000 (Millennium CFO Survey, 2000), and 2001 (Act Achieved Its Goals, 2008). With recent focus on accountability, it is more important than ever to understand the sentiments of agency CFOs and managers in order to gauge the future of federal financial management. One journal article, by Steinhoff and Dacey, mentions the most recent AGA CFO survey in the context of using the results to provide suggestions for future improvements to federal financial management (Steinhoff & Price, 2009). However, this paper provides a more in-depth view of survey responses and results, basing all suggestions on what the agency CFOs are currently demanding of the governing bodies.
This paper attempts to put together all the separate themes of the current articles into one: progress made and opinions about the future, addressing problems, and using the latest AGA CFO survey as a springboard because the results are coming from the front lines of federal financial management.
THE CFO ACT OF 1990: A BACKGROUND
The Chief Financial Officers (CFO) Act of 1990 was made Federal law by President Bush, marking the first attempt since 1950 at redirecting focus back to federal financial management. The CFO Act gave new and expanded responsibilities to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in order to provide a clear leader for the establishment and oversight of federal financial management. A new position was created within the OMB titled the Deputy Director for Management, with functions such as "establishing government wide financial management policies and requirements", "monitoring resources required to effectively operate, maintain, and enhance financial management systems", "monitoring the financial execution of the budget" and "ensuring that the government has a highly qualified cadre of financial management professionals" (Chief Financial Officers Council, 1991). Also, the CFO Act created chief financial officer posts in twenty three agencies. While most are president-appointed positions, the CFO Act requires that the individual have experience and be qualified. A specific set of qualifications and requirements was later established by the OMB. The CFO of each agency is entirely responsible for overseeing the financial management system within the agency, eliminating the unclear responsibility distinctions that led to past system failures and poor financial management execution. These financial management systems must meet all "accounting principles, standards, and requirements", all "internal control standards", and all "requirements of OMB, the Department of the Treasury, and others" (Chief Financial Officers Council, 1991).
The CFO Act required the OMB to institute a financial management plan. The OMB is required annually to submit a 5-year government-wide plan to Congress that covers a wide array of financial and accounting information. The goal of the 5-year plan is to force agency managers and CFOs to look continually at financial management systems and find areas for improvement, remove duplicative systems, and ensure adherence to financial and accounting requirements so that the systems provide timely and accurate financial information. Forcing financial management systems to provide quality and useful information is a main goal of the CFO Act. The Act requires agencies to record cost information, budgetary information and performance measurements. The most important requirement instituted by the CFO Act is the submission of independently audited financial statements, beginning the process of increasing public credibility.
Due to the uniqueness of federal governmental accounting and financial management, a forum that encouraged the exchange of ideas and knowledge was thought to be necessary in order to further the advancement of federal financial management. Thus, the CFO Act created a Chief Financial Officers Council chaired by the Deputy Director of Management of the OMB. It is comprised of financial professionals from the Treasury and the OMB as well as agency CFOs. The council is essentially a federal financial management think tank. The last two chapters of the CFO Act impose additional audit and report requirements on government corporations to increase accountability and responsibility and outlines the responsibility of the Comptroller General, the Director of the OMB, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board to cooperatively create federal governmental accounting standards and statements. The standards are then issued in the GAO's "yellow book" (Chief Financial Officers Council, 1991).
GMRA OF 1994: A BACKGROUND
President Clinton signed the Government Management Reform Act of 1994 (GMRA) into law on October 13, 1994. The GMRA amended the CFO Act, expanding the number of agencies required to compile annual audited financial statements. The GMRA also required a government wide audited annual report to be created from the individual agency annual reports. Lastly, the GMRA required the Federal Government to publish an annual Accountability Report, which is a description of financial management and monetary policy aimed at the average citizen. The accountability report aims at reaching all citizens, without regard to their level of finance and accounting understanding, so that all Americans can understand what the government is doing with tax dollars. In summary, the Accountability Report is "a straightforward description of the money spent and its effects on achieving results" (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994). This amendment to the CFO Act was formulated from suggestions made by the National Performance Review, led by Vice President Al Gore. Lastly, the GMRA outlined small but instrumental changes to Federal financial management, such as the power of the OMB Director to decide what is considered "timely" for agency financial reports to be available to the OMB and Congress. Also, the breadth of information in the reports required of the agencies was expanded by the GMRA in hopes to provide information to the public that can be used to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of the Federal government (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994).
ADVANCES MADE IN FEDERAL FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT
Since the adaptation of the CFO Act in 1990, amended by the subsequent GMRA legislation of 1994, great progress has been made in federal financial management. When the CFO Act and the GMRA began requiring agencies to submit annual financial reports, it was an extremely daunting assignment. Federal governmental agencies, at that time, did not have financial information systems in place that aided in producing the information necessary for an annual report. In order to meet the new requirements and deadlines, a major overhaul of both the financial and non-financial information systems of the majority of the agencies was necessary, because at the time the CFO Act was passed, only three agencies were issuing annual reports. Since the focus on improving federal financial management, the number of reports has greatly increased, leading to more useful and timely information for Congress, the administration and the public. For example, "[i]n fiscal year 1994, audited financial statements were issued for 124 federal reporting entities, and almost half received unqualified opinions" (Fadairo, Trotman & Onyekelu-Exe, 2008). It is important to note that this massive improvement to agency reporting occurred only four years after the CFO Act and in the same year that the GMRA was signed into law. However, all reporting agencies must receive unqualified opinions if the overall governmental statements are to receive an unqualified opinion. Thus, there is still substantial progress that must be made within some agencies. More specifically, the current major problem areas are the Department of Defense and Homeland Security.
The growing number of unqualified opinions (19 out of 24 agencies in fiscal year 2007) is not the only progress made due to the CFO Act and GMRA Steinhoff & Dacey, 2008). The timeliness of information is extremely important and now agencies issue annual reports within 45 days of the year end date. This is a dramatic decrease from the previous five month timeline, where almost one half of the next fiscal year is already passed when the results from the previous year are released! Also, the government consolidated annual report, compiling all agency information, is now issued only 75 days post year end, reduced from six months (Steinhoff & Dacey, 2008).
In an effort to make the federal government and its operations more transparent to the general public, a "summary report" is now being jointly issued by the Treasury Department and the OMB, with help from the GAO. The first report, released in 2008 and named "The Government's Financial Health--A Citizen's Guide to the Financial Report of the U.S. Government," aimed at "highlight[ing] important information in the 186-page consolidated financial statements in an easy-to-read, user-friendly, eight-page, bottom line-oriented document on our nation's financial health" (Steinhoff & Dacey, 2008). The progress made toward providing the citizens of the United States more understandable information in order to create a more informed public has been monumental. What once was a black box of a government, where tax dollars would flow in and programs would flow out but without any linkage between the two, now is a more transparent governing body that attempts to provide people with information to link cost (taxes) with returns (programs and services provided).
Lastly, notable progress has been made to try to relate financial measurements with performance indicators. Performance measurement has often been difficult for local and state governments, so it was expected that it would be extremely difficult for the federal government. First, there are no other "United States Governments" for comparison purposes. Secondly, while agencies can use each other as benchmarks, each agency is extremely different, which also leads to difficulties when trying to establish reliable performance measures. However, despite these hurdles, the federal government has made advancements in providing useful and dependable performance measurements to its financial statement users. Each agency that is required to issue financial reports under the CFO Act also must prepare Performance and Accountability Reports (PAR) annually in order to attempt to link finances to agency performance. Also, to recognize and reward agencies with superb performance reporting, the Association of Government Accountants (AGA) created the Certificate of Excellence in Accountability Reporting (CEAR) Program, which is awarded to agencies that reach an advanced level of performance and accountability reporting. As summarized by Steinhoff and Dacey, the AGA has "foster[ed] an environment where excellence in performance and accountability reporting is recognized as a clear indication of a high performing finance organization and has energized the federal financial management community" (Steinhoff & Dacey, 2008). Now governmental agencies strive to provide reliable and informative performance information in their PARs in order to obtain a CEAR.
MOVING FEDERAL FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT FORWARD
There have been many articles in recent financial and governmental accounting journals attempting to determine whether or not federal financial management goals have been met. Many of the authors cite the reasoning for the topic to be the fifteenth anniversary of the GMRA. However, another reason for the revisit to the issue of federal financial management is that progress seems to have stalled in the past three to five years. There has not been an increase in the number of unqualified audit opinions on agency financial statements since fiscal year 2005 (Peters, 2008). As previously stated, agencies like the Department of Defense and Homeland Security are extremely far from obtaining a clean audit opinion for many reasons. The agencies that, under the current standards and circulars, are able to achieve a clean opinion have done so. The agencies that have not yet received a clean opinion are not going to be able to until some new standards are established due to their unique limitations. The Department of Defense must be very careful how certain expenditures are reported due to security and confidentiality. However, an independent auditor cannot verify that expenditure was correctly stated and in accordance with GAAP if all the information cannot be disclosed. This is just one example of the types of conflicts that can hold back certain departments from receiving unqualified audit opinions. Until requirements and circulars address the individualities of certain agencies, clean audit opinions cannot be achieved.
DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE AND HOMELAND SECURITY
The Department of Defense has financial accounting systems in place that are simply unable to provide managers and the CFO the necessary information to compile reliable reports. A system overhaul is necessary to correct accounting code and processing differences, which make it difficult to share information among the other agencies and branches (Peters, 2008). Also, the war on terror has made it extremely difficult for the Department of Defense to make any major improvements or changes. The wars, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, have also caused an increase in incorrectly documented spending, making it impossible to achieve a clean audit opinion. Lastly, the wars add extreme amounts of uncertainty and unpredictability to a required budget (Peters, 2008). Currently, the Department of Defense attempts to receive a clean opinion on as many balance sheet items as possible, knowing that achieving an overall unqualified opinion is unrealistic. Progress has been defined as increasing the percent of assets and liabilities obtaining clean opinions from year to year. According to Peters, "[b]y 2009, Defense officials expect that 65 percent of the department's assets and 79 percent of its liabilities will receive clean audit opinions" (Peters, 2008). With the new administration planning major troop withdrawal in the near future, the complexities created by the war will be partially mitigated. Hopefully, then, the Department of Defense can focus more on financial management by upgrading the financial and accounting system and achieving, for the first time, an unqualified audit opinion.
The prevailing reason the Department of Homeland Security has been unable to obtain an unqualified audit opinion is the Coast Guard (Peters, 2008). According to KPMG LLP, the auditors of the Department of Homeland Security, there are "'longstanding procedural, control, personnel and cultural issues [that] have impeded progress toward installing an effective financial management structure' at the Coast Guard" (Peters, 2008). Over the years, the Coast Guard has given a lot of independence and power over supplies and funding decisions for their mission to commanding operatives in the field. This has created a decentralized operating system where commanders are spending whatever they deem necessary to successfully complete missions without knowing what other commanders are spending. The problem with attempting to correct this is that Coast Guard operatives sense that the independence is being minimized, and is allowing bureaucracy to impede the goals of the organization and stifle potential successful missions, causing animosity within the organization. The Coast Guard's CFO, Rear Admiral Keith Taylor, aims to create a more centralized financial management system by convincing field operatives that by removing financial decisions from their responsibilities, the Coast Guard is "'unburdening' them" so that they can work more efficiently and completely focus on the mission itself (Peters, 2008). The Department of Homeland Security, like the Department of Defense, is working on reformatting financial management systems in order to obtain an unqualified audit opinion, but reaching the goal is still far in the future.
2008 AGA ANNUAL CFO SURVEY
The federal government wants to further improve financial management and financial information, but not at a high expense to the agencies themselves. In order to keep progressing to meet the goals of the CFO Act and the GMRA, and improve financial management beyond these decades' old pieces of legislation, the government must listen to those facing the improvements head on: the CFOs. The Association of Government Accountants works with Grant Thorton, LLP on an annual basis to conduct a survey of federal financial executives and managers in order to collectively assess the sentiments about financial management directly from the source. The 2008 CFO survey was completed by "239 federal financial management executives and managers" (Association of Government Accountants, 2008). Overall, the results of the survey seem to mimic the findings of the professionals currently publishing articles about federal financial management: the CFO Act and the GMRA were successful in getting federal financial management to this point; however, there is more to be done and it seems progress has stalled when attempting to take the next step.
One important point uncovered by the AGA is the disconnect between the information being compiled by government agencies and the financial information desired by citizens. AGA conducted another survey in 2008 questioning citizens, supposedly the most important governmental financial statement users, and found that "[o]nly 5 percent of citizens are satisfied with the federal financial information they received" (Association of Government Accountants, 2008). This is extremely revelatory because since the CFO Act and the amending GMRA, agencies have logged many hours and spent large sums of money in order to create the financial reports required and the citizens are not satisfied. It seems that the prior focus was to adjust the governmental agencies financial systems to produce reports that are similar to those created by corporations in industry, with the justification being that the agencies should be held to that same level of scrutiny. However, in reality, governments, especially the federal government, and corporations are more different than they are alike. Perhaps it is time to focus on governmental accounting standards and work to devise a unique financial model that works for the federal government, the most unique reporting body in the country, instead of trying to force an already established model upon the government hoping that it will work. The executives who filled out the survey "think that the story of the CFO Act does not have to end with financial reporting [...] it is time to evolve federal financial information into a form that will be more transparent to citizens, relevant to decision makers and appropriate for government" (Association of Government Accountants, 2008).
While changing the model is ideally what government CFOs are looking for, that can take time to implement. The AGA suggests that perhaps a change to the process of creating financial reports can also be modified by taking a cue from Canada. While the United States federal government uses a "bottom-up" approach to creating annual audited financial statements. Each agency is required to create its own financial report that must be audited. Then, each agency submits the audited financial report to the Treasury Department by a specific day, which then is consolidated with all the other agency reports into a government wide annual report to be audited by the GAO. This process creates multiple problems and barriers to the ultimate goal of the consolidated report receiving an unqualified opinion. Each time there is a problem at a department or component, it is rolled up into the agency report. That problem is then further carried up into the government-wide report. The problem, while material at the component level may not be material at the agency level and even more likely not material at the government level. However, due to the process, such component problems like in the Department of Defense and the Coast Guard in the Department of Homeland Security make it nearly impossible for the government to receive an unqualified opinion. Canada, consistently earning unqualified audit opinions on her government-wide statements, utilizes a "top-down" process to formulating annual reports. In essence, the government-wide statements are given the highest priority, where in the United States; the agency statements are given the highest priority (Association of Government Accountants, 2008). In Canada, the agencies:
[...] submit trial balance data during and at the end of the fiscal year for the national financial statement process. The government's central auditor identifies and audits material components, taking the audit work to the entity that submitted the data. An independent public accounting firm audits the national report. After that, entities prepare their own financial statements (Association of Government Accountants, 2008). Although it would be a complete transformation of the current process being employed, this idea could first be explored before any major changes are being made. If agencies submit trial balances, it can be determined what would be considered material in a government-wide sense compared to the material weaknesses cited in each individual agency's audit opinion. If there are many discrepancies between what is material at the national level versus the agency level, the "top-down" approach should be heavily considered, especially due to the Department of Defense and Homeland Security issues discussed earlier.
The CFO Survey goes deeply into issues such as internal controls, the downfalls of continuing resolutions, and the highest risks CFOs currently face, such as the inability to employ the proper amounts of qualified workers and the leaders in charge of financial management not really being on the same page as managers. However, most importantly to the future path of financial management improvement, the survey questioned the professionals as to what they believe should be the focus of the next two to five years (Association of Government Accountants, 2008). Respondents were asked to rank the "initiatives that should be emphasized over the next 2 to 5 years" and the number one result was "cost, budget and performance reporting" (Association of Government Accountants, 2008). This result indicates that the demanded changes to reporting are viewed by the financial management executives and managers to be the most pertinent and should be the first issue addressed in this new phase of governmental financial management reform. When financial management was first being established and reformed in the governmental sector, many of the organizations in charge of issuing requirements and standards focused simply on creating a list of rules in order to create some form of responsibility and credibility among the agencies. However, now that financial management has become such a focus, especially with the creation of the CFO position within every agency, the method of just creating more and more rules to follow may not be the most efficient approach to further progress. Now, many executives feel that some of the accounting requirements are in place simply to be able to say that they are required. As one survey respondent stated, "There should not be any effort expended to create financial information that is not of value to manage programs" (Association of Government Accountants, 2008). The OMB is attempting to address this problem by seeing the results of a "Pilot Program" that it established for fiscal year 2007, which offered an alternative to agencies for preparing the PAR, which embodies many of the reporting complaints previously discussed. The alternative is a collection of three separate reports: an agency financial report, an annual performance report, and a highlights report. The idea is that these new reports would focus on how agencies should be reporting data to make it more transparent, concise, and improve the ease of use and understandability (Steinberg, 2009) Currently, agencies, organizations and professionals are offering their opinions of the pilot program reports versus the PARs. This is in the preliminary stages, and the conversation must continue because without all the affected parties discussing options to better governmental reporting, no progress will be made. With the current state of the economy and the large deficits due to corporate bailouts, government spending will be scrutinized more than normal and budgets will have to be tight. CFOs and managers will desperately need financial information that will aid in program decisions. The new pilot program reports have the potential to achieve this; however, the AGA believes that there are still adjustments to be made. This program needs to be watched moving forward in order to see the changes unfold, hopefully for the better.
When the CFO Act and the GMRA were established starting in 1990, there had been an extreme lack of focus on governmental financial management. However, the demand by Congress and taxpaying citizens for useful information to judge the effectiveness of agencies and programs and the financial health of the overall government led to such legislation. Over time, agency CFOs found that they, too, needed timely and useful financial information in order to make necessary, and often difficult, program and budget decisions. This additional need has led many to realize that what is currently required of CFOs, agencies, and the federal government, may not be the best information for the future. A new stage of governmental financial management must be created where what the CFO Act and the GMRA established was only the foundation, with more building blocks to come.
Requiring annual reports from all agencies and compiling a government-wide report, was extremely necessary in forcing credibility on agency spending. CFO positions were created to lead each agency in a financial sense and give a focus to the importance of sound financial management. However, now that agencies are used to having to issue reports, the reports must be reformatted to work for both the external and internal users. The current format tries too hard to assimilate information into statements resembling those required for corporations. The fact of the matter is that the United States federal government is an extremely unique entity. Just because certain formats work for corporations or even state and local governments is not an indication that they will work for the federal government. There must be a balance between requirements and usefulness, because currently, CFOs and managers feel that they are simply going through the motions to create statements that are not very useful in their decision making processes (Association of Government Accountants, 2008).
As of right now the growth of agencies receiving unqualified audit opinions has completely stalled. The Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security are the two most discussed agencies that have been unable to ever receive an unqualified audit opinion. While this has much to do with weaknesses in the financial systems of both agencies, this very well could also be because of a faulty reporting process. The shortfalls of the "bottom-up" approach to agency reporting were discussed in depth and I truly believe that some of the issues found in these agencies' annual reports would not be material at the government-wide level. If a "top-down" approach were attempted, an unqualified audit opinion for the government-wide annual report would not be as far off as it is now. An unqualified opinion for the entire government would held increase morale within the government sector and establish credibility with citizens.
The results of the AGA 2008 CFO Survey were extremely enlightening. It seems that the majority of executives and managers are in agreement when it comes to where they want federal financial management to start heading in the future. However, the discussion needs to start between governmental accountants, auditors, the OMB, and governmental agencies because there apparently seems to be a disconnect. The AGA Survey can be a starting point for the exploration of the future changes needed. Financial management can never be perfect, but as of right now, there is still progress that can be made.
The CFO Act and the GMRA were extremely successful in achieving what each piece of legislation set out to do. However, just like in 1990, the federal government is at a turning point and the current system cannot move forward without changes.
Aguilera, R., Holmberg, J., & Gregory, S. (2009). The Chief Financial Officer Academy: Meeting Strategic Training Needs. The Journal of Government Financial Management, 58(1), 26-29.
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U.S. Government Printing Office. GPO Access. (1994, October 13). Statement on Signing the Government Management Reform Act of 1994. 13 Oct. 1994. Retrieved March 23, 2009, from http://frwebgate3.access.gpo.gov/cgibin/PDFgate.cgi? WAISdocID=89158311499+0+2+0&WAISaction=retrieve.
Katy E. Armul
Florida Institute of Technology
Nathan M. Bisk College of Business
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|Author:||Armul, Katy E.|
|Publication:||Issues in Innovation|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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