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Education, Cooperation and Empowerment – a Finance Professional’s Perspective

By Marie Sherry, CPFA, MICPT, ACPFIM, Treasurer/Finance Director, City of Dexter

Many years ago, as a young petty officer in the US Navy, I learned my first lesson in government budgeting.  That lesson was to spend every last penny of your department budget this year so that your department budget next year would not be cut.  It didn’t matter what was best for the organization as a whole, just what was best for us.  It’s no wonder the military ended up with $600 toilet seats.

In today’s world of public administration, the model described above is unimaginable.  Think about it, though.  Have we really moved that far away from that model?  In many organizations, the budget process goes something like this:  The department head prepares a departmental budget and gives it to the administrator, who makes decisions on what is or isn’t recommended for funding.  Next, the budget goes to the legislative body, which may or may not change things based on their own perceptions, and finally the document is approved.  Then, throughout the year, the department heads implement their budgets in a sort of vacuum, with little budgetary interaction between each other.

As a municipal finance professional, I think that it is important to break out of that traditional model of budget and finance and move into one based upon knowledge and cooperation.  With our frustrating reality of shrinking revenue streams and staff being expected to do more with less, knowledge and cooperation can bring empowerment.  So, how can a finance professional help their organization achieve this empowerment?  The answer lies in education.

The first type of education that needs to be done is the education of you.  An MPA degree is a wonderful starting point, but continuing education is what allows you to grow within your job.  Personally, I am a member of several professional organizations, and I serve on committees within those organizations.  If your government is under fiscal stress, these organizations often have scholarships that will help you attend educational conferences.  One of my most valuable professional volunteer activities is serving as a reviewer for the Government Finance Officers Association’s Distinguished Budget Award program. What a fantastic way to see what other governments are doing and innovating across the country – and it’s free! 

The second type is the education of the administrator and legislative body.  Share what you have learned at your educational conferences with them.  Bring up fresh ideas, but don’t be disappointed if you meet with resistance.  Sometimes incremental changes are the key to achieving long-range goals.  I also like to make sure that decision makers have all the financial information that they need in an easy-to-understand format, and I never shy away from unusual requests for reports or other data that I would not normally provide.  Our financial records aren’t mine after all; they belong to everybody.

The third group that should be included for education is your fellow employees.  Try to find technological or other ways to enable them to see what has been charged to their budgets and why.   Give them tools that they can use to see how their department fits in with the rest of the organization.  Make sure that they have information about the revenue side of the equation.  Help them change their focus from narrow to big picture – as valuable members of the entire team.

Of course, education is difficult when there’s no cooperation.  If you are working in a culture where one half of the people say black while the other half says white, then change is not going to be easy.  However, if you work in one in which cooperation is encouraged, or one open to increased cooperation, then you will be amazed at how much a little education can propel you forward from both a personal and an organizational perspective.  When this happens, everyone wins – especially the citizens who deserve the best government that can be provided and who are, after all, the reason public administration exists.

Marie Sherry, CPFA, MICPT, ACPFIM, is the Treasurer/Finance Director for the City of Dexter and a 2001 alum of the EMU MPA Program.

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