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Monday, April 07, 2008

Commentary: Changing the path to progress

In any project worth undertaking, we review past choices to improve future decisions and to assess whether the best path to meet objectives is being followed. As stewards of public funds, federal managers must ensure that every decision to expend the resources entrusted to them achieves the intended results and maximizes value in the American public’s best interests. Doing so involves taking stock of where programs are, where they should go and the best means to get there.

Recently, the Labor Department’s effort to reassess the course plotted to enhance financial management — through implementation of a new core financial system — revealed a need to alter course and take a different path to the planned destination.

The department in 2003 sought to develop a new core system to replace its accounting system in use since 1989. The mainframe-based system served the department well, as evidenced by 11 consecutive years of clean audit opinions. But we are reaching a point where updating “ancient” code to keep up with changing federal requirements is too costly and difficult.

Recognizing the need for sound financial management and accountability, we decided to replace the aging system with a state-of-the-art system that would meet the needs of our component agencies and other stakeholders. One main goal for the new system is to create an environment in which the department’s financial professionals can devote more time to value-added analysis, while letting the system perform manual, labor-intensive transaction processing.

Agencies face doing more with less, stretching every dollar, and working harder and smarter with fewer people. The start-and-stop funding associated with continuing resolutions can leave new projects without consistent financial support, impairing short-term progress and clouding long-term planning. In this environment, we must find opportunities to leverage limited assets and make tough decisions to enable the financial management community to deliver critical services as efficiently and effectively as possible.

The advantages accruing from greater standardization, coupled with funding uncertainties, has led Labor to opt for using a shared service provider. Labor, and the rest of government, have similar goals for financial management — the creation of accurate, timely and useful financial information to enhance accountability to our stakeholders, the American public. Forging multiple paths to the same destination no longer makes sense. With careful planning, and by restructuring business processes rather than modifying commercial off-the-shelf code, we will maximize our investments to date and fulfill our financial system needs for years to come.

Sometimes federal managers need to take a step back to see the path forward, and they should not be afraid to change course if doing so is in the best interest of the program and its stakeholders. The Labor Department is now on a path forward that will achieve our financial management goals, ensure fiscal accountability, transparency and more effective use of resources well into the future.

- Lisa Fiely, Deputy Chief Financial Officer, U.S. Department of Labor

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