In Accenture’s 2018 global CFO study, we noted that the CFO and finance roles globally are being reshaped by several factors, including:
- Increasing expectations: Boards, CEOs, and enterprises expect and need more from CFOs
- The accelerating pace of change
- Constant pressure to show growth and improved performance
- The exploding volume and power of data, requiring both focus and new capabilities
- Expanding expectations for more control and compliance, driven by regulations and consumer expectations
The ongoing pandemic has only increased these expectations as many CFOs assumed additional responsibilities for business strategy and enterprise resilience in its wake.
Federal CFOs must manage similar expectations while also facing a more complex reporting structure, including oversight from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Department of Treasury, and congressional appropriators. Federal CFOs are also held to a high level of transparency and accountability through analysis reports from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
As the GAO noted in a recent report, Federal Financial Management (August 2020), the stakes for federal CFOs have arguably never been higher:
With the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic — which has required unprecedented federal action to protect public health and reduce economic impacts on individuals and businesses — now more than ever, lawmakers and government leaders need access to timely and reliable financial information. The nation faces serious economic, security, and social challenges that require Congress and the administration to make difficult, near-term policy choices in setting national priorities and charting a path forward for economic recovery and growth.
Our research found that the pandemic and economic crisis have disrupted operating models for federal departments and agencies - with CFOs, in many cases, rising to the occasion. The majority of federal survey respondents indicated they have taken numerous steps "to a great extent" to navigate this uncertainty, including:
- Enhancing capabilities to produce real-time data (59 percent)
- Investing in technology to automate core tasks (57 percent)
- Embedding a more agile workforce including remote work (55 percent)
- Developing additional long-term financial forecasts (54 percent)
- Horizon scanning with senior leadership (51 percent)
- Assessing resilience of third-party suppliers and ecosystem partners (51 percent)
- Ramping-up delivery of short-term forecasts and analytics (50 percent)
Through these actions, federal CFOs have expanded their role as the primus inter pares ("first among equals") amid their C-suite peers. For example, 93 percent of federal respondents (versus 79 percent of global respondents) believe that the CFO is best positioned to ensure organizational resilience to achieve the mission in the current environment. Furthermore, 92 percent view the CFO as fully accountable for their agency’s ability to navigate the current disruption. Finally, 86 percent believe that the economic upheaval of 2020 has "demonstrated the large complexity of the CFO’s responsibilities and the vital role that finance plays in aligning the back office with wider organizational strategy."
They also view the current operating environment as continuing for the foreseeable future. Sixty-six percent of federal finance executives (as of October 2020) do not expect "business as usual" to return for at least another 12 months. Across the federal enterprise, 89 percent agree that senior leaders’ expectations for finance are fundamentally changing. And 85 percent of these executives believe that without a strong finance function, their agencies will not be able to achieve their ambitions in the post-digital world.
Despite this upheaval, federal CFOs remain committed to their unique public mission during these tumultuous times. Four out of five argue that they cannot lose sight of their efforts to innovate and enhance service to the public no matter what happens in the economy. And many are taking responsibility for their agency’s broader role in society, such as their agency’s environmental impact.
Given these new priorities, they anticipate spending significantly more time on business transformation (26 percent of respondents), enterprise risk management (26 percent), and supporting strategic initiatives (26 percent) post-pandemic. In contrast, they expect to spend the same or less time on cost-cutting and efficiency drives.
By embracing emerging best practices and operating models, federal CFOs can continue their evolution and emerge from the pandemic in an even stronger position to lead their agencies forward.
Bottom line focus
Our global report identified a series of best practices and modeled their impact on the performance of S&P 500 companies. This was designed to demonstrate their strategic importance. We found that the average company’s compound annual growth rate (CAGR), as measured by Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization (EBITDA), would nearly double from 3.8 percent to 6.9 percent over a three-year period with their adoption. At the same time, they could also increase overall revenue CAGR from 2.7 percent to 3.0 percent by embracing these approaches.
While federal agencies are not generally measured by profit and loss, they require similar performance leaps to keep pace with the growing complexity federal CFOs face. For example, the U.S. federal budget has more than doubled over the past twenty years from $1.8B (2001) to $4.8B (2021 est.), underscoring the increased scope of their responsibilities. Furthermore, many federal financial management organizations have expanded their functional responsibilities, adding procurement, grants management, human resources, information technology, and risk management to their portfolio to varying degrees.
Given the unique requirements and expectations associated with each role – Economic Guardian, Strategic Adviser and Transformation Architect – federal CFOs should assess their current performance to identify areas for additional investment and focus. Across these disciplines, they should also focus on using automaton, process innovation and organizational design to accelerate the speed and efficiency of decision-making, increasing the resiliency and adaptability of operations, and develop new approaches to generate insights and achieve better performance.