For public-sector finance professionals, vigilance and caution are daily facts of life: You never know what's coming next. But in periods of major transition — whether through a change in administration, department merger, or strategic pivot — doing the job takes on an added dimension of uncertainty.
"I have definitely faced my share of transitions," said John Kaschak, CPA, CGMA, executive deputy secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue. In 22 years, he's worked for two public accounting firms, three state agencies, and five administrations. "Some were by my choice; others were dealt at the hand of the electorate. However, each of these transitions came with their own share of uncertainty and angst."
Fortunately for Kaschak, he thrives on change, one of the foundational characteristics to negotiate workplace transitions with competence and confidence. Yet even when applying their skill sets and experience surrounding transformation, those in public-sector finance may only be able to do so much, given the overarching changes surrounding them.
Why transitions fail
According to research by McKinsey & Co., nearly four in five public-sector transformations, such as changing the delivery of public services, updating technology systems, or cutting redundant processes, in a post-election cycle fail, often because of insufficient time for public-sector leaders to prepare for and manage transitions, insurmountable conflicts created by a wide range of divergent stakeholder interests, and the pressure that high public visibility brings.
But it's precisely in such conditions that finance professionals can have the greatest impact. Tops among the myths that drive public-sector transformation failure, McKinsey contends, is that bottom-line financial concerns are "not applicable in the public sector."
One essential ingredient for success is what McKinsey labels as "radical transparency." And this is something finance professionals can provide: "Impact metrics may include cost savings, revenues generated, or improved employee or customer satisfaction."
As Kaschak and other veterans of the public sector will tell you, potential changes that loom during a close election cycle can at least be anticipated — while others simply can't. Last year provided a textbook lesson in surviving a changeover that not only originated far beyond the office cubicle but also in essence cordoned it off.
The COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented period of change, where home offices and spare bedrooms became the primary workplace. Every manner of employee and stakeholder interaction took place via videoconferencing, even as stay-at-home kids interacted unexpectedly with their working parents. (This implies yet another upcoming transition: as the pandemic recedes, returning to office spaces that many workers haven't seen for a year or more.)
How can those in public-sector finance address the challenges of transition, continue to make valuable workplace contributions, and come out shining on the other side? Consider these six positive action and attitudinal steps.
Accomplishing the transition mission
Be prepared to start over. Expertise is one thing; helping newcomers in your department row with you in a common direction is quite another. Here, some humility will help even if your new colleagues lack the experience and savvy you have. "When transition comes, you may find yourself in a situation where the folks you work with don't understand what you bring to the table," Kaschak said. "You may need to prove your worth to a whole new group of individuals. But this is also an opportunity to reinvent yourself. Transition presents opportunities to build new relationships, show off your talents, and advance yourself."
Err on the side of overcommunicating. While communication represents a gold-standard value in any circumstance, a changing of the guard requires that no institutional knowledge, procedure, or shared mission be taken for granted. What's needed, then, is "frequent and consistent communication from all levels of the organization regarding the organizational change and anticipated timelines," said Carrie Kruse, CPA, CGMA, economic development administrator for the City of Des Moines, Iowa. "A higher frequency of communication provides the opportunity for real-time updates on what your team can expect when, and provides the ability to communicate any potential delays for various action items along the way." Not only does this keep things running smoothly: It also makes the new staff look good.
Remain flexible. Why do knowledgeable career finance professionals working in the public sector such as Kaschak thrive on change? As he put it, transition marks an opportunity to sharpen and add to his skill set as a finance professional. It also means letting go of the natural tendency toward resistance. "Other organizations and leaders do things differently, but different does not mean wrong," he said. "When confronted with change, it's important to be open to new ideas. Some of the greatest successes of my career have come as a result of merging of preexisting plans with new ideas."
Focus on your service mission. Getting tied up in turf battles or in emotional roadblocks such as resentment and fear can take one's focus off the big picture. Finance professionals so often stand out because of their commitment to drive positive change for communities and constituencies they serve. Transition marks an ideal time to double down on that mission. "Make it about service," said Don Bice, director in the Public Sector at BDO in Washington, D.C. "Employees that have made their career in public service are the most valuable assets governmental organizations have and are crucial to navigating transitions or uncertain times. Understand that you and your organization are providing a necessary service — while the focus or prioritization of your job may change, the services you provide are needed and valued."
Help the new leadership navigate. Make no mistake: Transition is difficult both for employees staying on and new ones coming on. Though the newcomers may not voice it — perhaps because they are loath to appear inexperienced — they often lack the knowledge to traverse the public-sector maze. "Use your hard-earned expertise to help new leadership navigate the new environment to prove your value to those who may be unfamiliar with the unique requirements and processes of federal or state and local accounting standards," Bice said. Existing statutes and regulations "don't change overnight and the functions you deliver still need to be delivered amid and after the change. Provide solid and objective advice that people can use to operate, especially if you are in a leadership role."
Build community outside work. Whether that means a Zoom "dinner hour" in pandemic conditions, or a night out bowling once conditions return to something approaching normal, "Don't underestimate the value of participating in the non–work-related company activities," Kruse said. That's how she got to know new team members from a merged department. "Over the summer we participate in an annual event called the Des Moines Corporate Games, and this year we had virtual trivia teams, virtual 'Name That Tune' teams, and a citywide scavenger hunt competition, among many other events. It's a really fun way to get to know your colleagues on a more personal level and helps build stronger cross-departmental relationships."
— Lou Carlozo is a freelance writer based in Chicago. 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.