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A Conversation With…

The Government Finance Research Center works with researchers from a variety of backgrounds to analyze the role that public finance plays in our lives. In the interviews below, we talk with experts to dig deeper into pertinent topics and get their perspective on the past, present, and future of government finance.

Mike Mucha, Government Finance Officers Association's Deputy Assistant Director and the Director of the Research and Consulting Center Heading link

photo of Mike Mucha

Q. You’ve been with GFOA for sixteen years. What are some of the most dramatic changes you’ve seen in the public sector finance workforce?

Mucha: Technology has enabled a significant transformation in governments that have embraced it. We’ve seen a lot of organizations go from very transactional, paper-based, and time-consuming processes to ones where many more transactions happen online and are managed by systems.  Approvals are electronic. Responsibilities can be more decentralized. Signatures, payments, and notifications all happen electronically. There tends to be, with technology, greater emphasis around self-service. As a result, the workforce has been less focused on data entry and error checking and are more focused on analysis and improvement.

Another shift that I’ve seen and that we’ve definitely trying to push for at GFOA is that the finance officer is not a just scorekeeper but a leader, who  has to get others involved.

Q. So, technology drives the field from one in which transactional roles dominate to one in which strategic roles are far more common?

Mucha: There’s no guarantee that if you get new technology, you’re going to use it correctly, or you’re going to take on those higher value-added activities.  However, in a situation where the technology does not support this shift, it becomes very difficult to sustain.

Q. You’ve described an important trend. But how commonplace is it? Are many local governments still in a transactional-oriented world?

Mucha: It would be hard to put a quantified number on it, but it’s safe to say that not all governments have experienced this shift Some excel at it and some struggle with the transition, but I if you looked at what a government does today, and then looked at what they did 10 years ago,  I think the vast majority would show improvements in spending less time in a transactional type environment. For some, the changes may not be to major systems, but change and modernization doesn’t always follow the same path.

Q. Are these changes happening more rapidly in recent years as there is a growing ability to make smaller changes with new software and services that can be implemented more quickly? In short, is the pace of change speeding up?

Mucha: I think that probably is accurate. I think a lot of governments have been able to implement things based on need and based on pressure.  For example, GFOA has had a best practice on use of electronic signatures for at least 20 years. There were a lot of governments that were very slow to adopt electronic signatures for contracts or for other formal approvals. Then COVID happened and a lot of governments quickly modernized and started accepting electronic signatures.

Q. I know you’ve been very involved in the world of procurement. How has the phenomenon we’ve been talking about play itself out in that field?

Mucha: Public procurement tends to be very processed based with an emphasis on process compliance. Modernization approaches look at what truly adds value. Availability of new systems combined with pressures from the pandemic created a situation where traditional processes were not going to work. Very quickly, organizations were able to become more automated, less focused on data entry, or paper processing, and finding an easier way. In many cases, this was redefining the role of finance or procurement to serve in more than a processing role.

Q. Does all of his help to foster more of a team approach?

Mucha: It requires more collaboration. In a model where it’s more paper based, your other departments —  parks, public works, police, fire —  are submitting documents that are then collected and entered into a system by the finance department.

But when operating departments are sharing some of that data entry burden it reduces the back-end data entry needed from a finance perspective. It also increases the need for finance to communicate.  Policies, expectations, service levels, deadlines, become much more important and much more a shared responsibility.

Q. Do the changes that technology makes possible mean there will be fewer jobs in finance departments than in the past?

Mucha: That’s probably a trend that’s going to vary from government to government, but the answer probably depends on how you count finance jobs. As transactional or processing jobs go away, there is a need for more analysts and program managers We also see where jobs in other departments take on more of a financial focus.I also think that as communities grow, public finance becomes more complex, and organizations adopt a model where finance drives collaborative leadership, the need for additional positions focused around decision support, public engagement, budget analysis, procurement analysis, grant analysis, economic development, and capital project management will it will create need for new positions that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

Q. Do you see this trend in the work that you do for government implementing new technology?

Mucha: When you implement a new cloud-based ERP system, there will be change. Some of the traditional roles that were necessary to enter data, run reports, manage internal infrastructure or process transactions may go away.  However, this is replaced with the need to manage upgrades more frequently, thoroughly test new functionality, better train users, or more fully leverage features..

I think there will continue to be a demand for people that can help organizations improve process,  ensure that governments allocate money more effectively demonstrate accountability. One of the reasons I was drawn to public finance and enjoy my work now is that connection between serving as a leader to facilitate better planning and decision making and the role finance plays in supporting delivery of service and creation of better community. Because of this, finance jobs will need to evolve and demand for people who excel at this will always be strong.

Q. Right now, it’s difficult to find people to fill all kinds of positions. How is that playing out in finance?

Mucha: I don’t have trend data across the entire industry, but organizations that we’ve been involved with have trouble hiring. When they can’t hire, they  aren’t able to opt out of completing certain tasks, so they get used to completing the work with less people. And some of that analytic work we’ve been talking about may not take place. In the short term, that may be OK, but long term, if you continue to get by with less people that can turn into your new normal.

We’re working with organizations that have 15 or 16 budgeted positions in finance and may have four or five vacancies. So thirty percent of the finance office is vacant.  They are able to handle current workload, but its clearly not sustainable. At some point employees will burn out or inability to implement new process or technology will catch up to them. Also, while it may not be clear initially, organizations that are short staffed are also likely not putting the time into building relationships and communicating with the rest of the organization as they should.

Q. Some people seem to believe that the shortage of personnel in finance is all pandemic related. But I recall that applications started falling off around 2015. Can you comment on that?

Mucha: I don’t think it’s all pandemic related. It’s hard to argue the pandemic didn’t have an impact, but I think some of what we are seeing now started long before the pandemic.  The pace of change was just accelerated over the last three years. GFOA has a strategic initiative to work on talent development for the profession and we see this as a major, long-term challenge.

Governments in general don’t do a good job of communicating the benefits of public sector work. It’s not only about pay and benefits, but public service, building a community, and helping others. Most governments also don’t make it easy for those who want to work to get a job.  Hiring practices can be frustrating and daunting. Once employed, governments need to be able to develop talent and provide opportunities for growth.  It would nice to see governments be more competitive in hiring versus the private sector. Our initiative realizes there is a lot of work to be done, but I’m optimistic that we will have an impact.

Q. How do you see job qualifications changing in the future as governments look for future finance officers?

Mucha: I think that goes back to what the successful finance officer brings to the table. One thing that I’ve always been able to rely on in my career is a strong set of analytic skills.  I’ve always enjoyed working with data. However, at some point, technical knowledge becomes less important and the need for leadership skills is critical.

Q. What are the most important leadership skills in finance?

Mucha: We asked the GFOA community, and the answers were that it entailed being able to work collaboratively, team building, communication skills. The nature of the profession is that the finance officer doesn’t walk into their office at nine o’clock in the morning, close the door and sit by themselves all day. They are working constantly and collaboratively with peers from around the organization. GFOA has an article in the February 2023 Government Finance Review on the role of a finance officer as a decision architect ().  I think this is a great example of leadership skills applied to finance. Decision-making is messy. Finance officers are positioned to help government officials plan more effectively, make better decisions, be more collaborate, use of data to inform, and get results.


This interview was conducted with Katherine Barrett, senior advisor GFRC and principal of Barrett and Greene, Inc.

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