A Little Financial Training Goes a Long Way

Senior officials in state and local government are understandably appointed for their subject-matter expertise, but they should have some basic financial management skills as well.
June 14, 2006
Scott Pattison
By Scott D. Pattison  |  Contributor
Scott D. Pattison was a GOVERNING contributor. He is executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers.

When I was a state budget officer, a department head called me one afternoon in a panic. The fiscal year end was months away, but his agency had already spent too much and he was going to have to lay off employees to make ends meet. I was so puzzled. He's just noticing this now? Had he not been looking at his agency's finances? You don't need to be a math whiz to look at a few simple spreadsheets now and then to make sure you are not overspending. Now, the department faced actually laying off employees and certainly faced some embarrassing newspaper articles (which did appear).

Senior officials in state and local government are understandably appointed for their subject-matter expertise. This is as it should be. You want the health department run by a doctor, an art museum run by an art historian, and the state police headed by a police officer. However, state and local governments should be more aggressive in ensuring that these well-qualified government officials have some basic financial management skills, and, if not, that financial training is available to them. For a relatively small investment of time and resources, many embarrassing and unnecessary problems can be avoided.

State and local governments should institute their own training so that it is a matter of course, requiring agency heads to receive training when they are newly appointed. There are many opportunities for training. Tap current or retired top finance and budget officials from the state or even the folks from the agency's own finance shop. Professional associations and private-sector firms, which can even tailor training for the state or locality, are other avenues.

It's true that most government departments have their own finance shops, but -- however expert they may be -- they don't always see the big picture of the agency. Nothing can substitute for the senior agency managers being familiar with, and aware of, the budget and financial situation at the agency.

State and local agency directors and other senior officials can also be proactive to ensure that they are aware of the financial situation in their agency. It really only takes a few hours, at most, per week and will not only prevent embarrassing "scandals" but, more importantly, will improve the management of the agency. Understanding the finances allows directors to ask, for example, if spending is in line properly, if controls are in existence and being followed to ensure proper travel reimbursement, or if procurement rules are being followed.

Too often, we see headlines in our local papers announcing government agency overspending, end-of-the-year budget cuts, or travel reimbursement "scandals." We immediately think: Fraud! Incompetence! While sometimes there is outright fraud and scandal, the problem more often involves poor bookkeeping or inadequate financial management. Ensuring that senior government officials are trained in basic financial management could so easily prevent this problem. This may not be an exciting or "sexy" initiative, but it sure is a good idea.