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Tales of Innovation in Government Finance

Just got back from Denver where I attended the 111th Annual GFOA Conference.  Wow, we’ve come a long way in 111 years!  What I love most about attending this event are the stories of innovation that inspire and motivate other communities to want to do more for their citizens.  As I mapped out my agenda of sessions that I wanted to attend, topics like transparency, ROI, engagement strategy, and ERP looked promising.

Naturally, I was looking for some sessions that focused on the workforce and I found it in a session called “How to Measure a High Performing Finance Office”.  This session was so crowded that I had to sit on the floor for the whole hour and a half.  But it was worth it.  Great speakers, interesting perspectives, and very informative.  Brendan Hanlon, CFO at the City & County of Denver kicked things off by addressing data and how it impacts performance management.  He advises to not just look at the data, but look for ways to improve performance.

Denver uses a Business Intelligence (BI) tool to help create dashboards to report and measure using data from different departments.  For example, he showed a chart depicting paychecks issued through direct deposit and those issued with an actual check.  The goal is defined; Get more people using direct deposit.  They use the data they had to measure the progress made over the past couple of years.

The next speaker, Judith Marte, CFO at Miami-Dade County Schools, came in talking about sustainability (and not the “green” kind).  No, this is the sustainability that goes hand-in-hand with succession planning.  Very early in her presentation, she said “I want to have a staff who can function without me.”  That statement can take anyone aback when they first hear it, but what she meant was she should not be the only one who can do her job.  She must have successors who could easily step in should she leave or retire.  She goes on to give advice about looking for “non-traditional” candidates and taking the inexperienced and training them.

To wrap up the session was the City of Madison Finance Director, David Schmiedicke.  David approached the topic of performance by speaking to cross training your employees to address areas with the greatest need and pair up with mentors as needed. He also made an interesting point about turn-over being an opportunity.  That it brings in new people who might have different skill sets and be willing to more freely embrace web-based solutions.

Overall, the theme of measuring and developing your workforce rang loud and clear.  The speakers set a good example of how to engage your employees by providing opportunities to enhance skill sets, grow personally and professionally, and feedback to understand the value they bring to the community.  Your employees are your single greatest asset and these leaders know how to treat them right.




A History Lesson in Public Pensions

Whether you love them or hate them, pensions have given employers a way to put money aside for their employees’ retirement for ages.  With so much media attention on the negative consequences of public pensions, it’s important to be educated on the history of pensions to keep an open mind about the pros and cons.  Pension reform is happening across the country, but how did we get to this point in the first place?

There is evidence that the earliest retirement plans can be found in the public sector, dating as far back as the early Roman Empire. Fast forward to the 18th century in the United States of America.  The Army and Navy began their pension plans as disability and severance pay, but by the 1800’s these turned into more formal retirement plans with Congress approved criteria. The Civil War had a major impact on military pensions with the imminent need of officers, soldiers, and other personnel to support the battles.

By the 1900’s states and local government began adopting defined benefit plans to offer to its employees.  What began primarily with just public school teachers, police, and fire quickly spread into state government.  Federal Government came into the picture with the Civil Service Retirement Act of 1920 after the end of World War I.  And the private sector was also getting into the mix at this time. Companies like General Electric, Goodyear Tire, and Eastman Kodak were offering pensions to their workforce.

As we reached the end of the twentieth century, the funding of pensions began creating a major drain on public budgets and resources.  Though in theory, these plans were supposed to be pre-funded to avoid any pay-out issues, it just wasn’t feasible.  Our government, in the early 1900’s, did not predict the mass exodus of baby boomers, people actually living longer, and the volatility of the market/economy.

States and localities are taking serious measures to reform pensions, but many employees are still grandfathered into very lucrative pensions so we won’t begin seeing the real benefits of reform for some time.  Employers are responsible to incorporate visibility measures into overtime, and other accepted compensation that increases pension pay-outs, to ensure there isn’t misconduct on the part of the employee.  Too much overtime is not only costly, but can result in fatigue issues which poses its own set of problems in itself.

The landscape of pensions has certainly changed since the inception of our country.  Pensions provided employers with a way to recruit and retain workers and for a while that made sense.  But longevity at one organization is becoming scarce as employees want to move up the career ladder and realize moving to another organization is the only way to accomplish that.  This is an opportunity for public sector to rethink benefits and look for ways to make good use of the limited time an employee will be there as pensions are no longer a lure.


A Shout-Out to our Public Servants

Public Service Recognition Week is upon us again.  The time of year to reflect on all the big (and little) ways government employees have supported our community.   There are so many people out there trying to make a difference.  Every meaningful act impacts our daily lives sometimes without even realizing it.  I am fortunate to live in a great community.  Just 40 minutes northwest of Boston.

On a typical day in my neighborhood I might see the van to pick up my elderly neighbor and bring him to the Senior Center.  Without that service he’d be stuck in the house with little interaction to the outside world.  As I drive by the park, I might see the Dept of Public Works out maintaining the soccer fields or assessing land for a new sidewalk.  Without this service, the safety of our children are at stake.  Speaking of children, I have two in the public school system.  They care for my children’s individual needs and challenge them in a way I could never do by myself.  Without them, our future wouldn’t look as bright.

This weekend our town will have it’s annual Apple Blossom Parade.  I feel a sense of pride when I attend this every year.  It brings the whole community together and, honestly, without the assistance of our town’s great employees I can’t imagine it being a success.  The children’s faces light up when the police cars and fire trucks roll down the street blaring their sirens.  They crack up when they see what silly theme the library staff will dress up as this year (last year it was Minions).  They chase after candy thrown into the crowd by town officials.   And they dance to the sounds of the high school marching band.

Take a moment to reflect on the endless ways those who serve the public make our lives a little better.  It starts as soon as you walk out the door.


The Dangers of Connectivity

Let’s face it, the work culture has evolved and technology is the responsible party.  Older generations could have never imagined we would be so accessible to so many people after the work day is through.  Even if you were “on-call” it was still only one person who could get in touch with you.  So, what makes us compelled to respond to calls or emails during our personal time.  Is it pressure?  Or is it a great benefit?

I started my career at a telecommunications company.  It was before smartphones, but not before laptops and cell phones.  Suffice to say, I was in an environment that was conducive to bringing work home with you.  I saw this as a benefit.  It provided some flexibility to my work/life balance.  But there is another side to always being connected.

Employers are beginning to look at the effects of after hour work.   Flexibility is a benefit, but to what extent.  Balance will play a crucial role in how we look at this in the future.  France has gone as far as implementing a “right to disconnect” law all in an effort to reduce stress caused by staying connected.  There may not be one right (or wrong) solution to this problem.