Imagine this: You'll soon depart for a business trip connected to your work in the public sector. It promises 10-hour workdays. The time you'll spend meeting, training, and networking will leave you too exhausted to even pick up the phone and call room service.
No one back at the home office doubts your commitment or work ethic for a second. But it just so happens the summit takes place in Las Vegas: Grumpy taxpayers and public-interest watchdogs will raise a stink. In a case like this, appearances trump reality.
In the public sector, "the two most common controversial items that are consistently raised are travel and training line items and pension liabilities," said Carrie Kruse, CPA, CGMA, economic development coordinator for the City of Des Moines, Iowa. "With nearly a decade of cuts in the early 2000s, local governments got very lean. When you're strategically cutting costs in some areas and still sending staff to various national conferences, the perceptions of that are not always favorable."
Of course, COVID-19 has virtually eliminated business travel for the time being. Still, governments need to exercise caution because taxpayers will inevitably move on to other areas they can closely examine. Pandemic or no, public-sector finance professionals and the employees they work with will always face scrutiny and scorn for a particular tax dollar spend, no matter how justified or necessary it may be.
According to the not-for-profit Urban Institute, cities, townships, counties, school districts, and special districts spent $1.6 trillion directly in 2017 (the date of the latest statistics available). State and local governments dedicated most of their resources to education, health, and social service programs. About one-third went toward combined elementary and secondary education (21%) and higher education (10%).
"While travel and meal expenses were likely minimal during COVID, employee overtime could be unusually high in certain aspects of government services," said John Kaschak, CPA, CGMA, executive deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue. "When the public is simply told that overtime has increased for government employees, without context, this immediately draws criticism and scrutiny."
5 steps to manage perceptions
How can those in public-sector finance handle public perceptions of spending without compromising on the work they need to do? Consider these five action steps.
Move it online. Virtual training got a major boost with the pandemic, and while it may lack the spark and engagement of in-person sessions, it poses definite advantages from the perspectives of public perception and line-item spend. "Luckily enough, there are numerous training offerings available so that the valuable content that employees receive at such conferences won't be lost," said public-sector accounting veteran Jack Reagan, CPA, now a partner with UHY LLP.
Take accountability to the next level. It's just as important to document the case for a trip or session, and the decision-making trail, as the dollar cost. In Des Moines, all such requests that reach the finance department "must be accompanied with a description of the benefit to the organization of sending staff members to the particular training … and must be signed off on by the employee and their supervisor," Kruse said.
Be transparent. Taxpayers and citizens often begin the process of picking apart expenditures from the viewpoint that local governments want to hide something. Unfair as that may be, those in public-sector finance can prepare in advance to address questions. "Be transparent," Kaschak said. "When talking about expenditures at public meetings, or when asking for increases in certain budgetary line items, they should explain the need in sufficient detail."
Supply balance to the conversation as well. "Also talk about the financial picture holistically," he noted. "Don't just focus on where the increases are; talk about where there have been savings as well."
Highlight the value proposition. Whatever concerns watchdogs or astute residents may bring up, finance professionals have the power to offer another perception simply by explaining what the public gains for its money.
"We focus on the benefits to the organization by sending staff to various national conferences," Kruse said. "National conferences are great opportunities for professional staff to meet with their peers from all across the globe, share ideas, success stories, and work to develop new efficiencies for governmental operations."
Tell your story. Spreading the word about the good that government funds do for the community and even individual communities can create a greater understanding of the value taxpayers are getting for their money.
"Leaders should talk about how they're being good stewards of taxpayer dollars," Kaschak said.
So be specific and give people examples they can see in their mind's eye. "They should convey any instances where they've made changes in operations to gain efficiencies and realize cost savings, and talk about the benefits to the public as a result of any increases in spending," Kaschak said.
— Lou Carlozo is a freelance writer based in Illinois. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.