The Ghosts of Three Finance Directors

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December 8, 2015

From the Finance Director’s Desk …

Last night, I fell asleep in my armchair watching Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” I dreamed I was Ebenezer Scrooge being visited by the three spirits of Finance Directors Past, Present and Future. Here’s what they showed me:

After arriving at my house, the Ghost of Finance Directors Past took me by the hand and we flew over my first job as a Finance Director. He showed me my old Borough’s bookkeeping machine and an ancient adding machine next to reams of ledger paper. I toiled endlessly adding columns and rows, footing and cross-footing totals in sequential reconciliations, while my colleagues returned to their homes for the holidays. The spirit then took me to me the day I upgraded to NCR hardware that ran Cobol source municipal accounting software. Those early packages were notorious for making one-sided journal entries, and dropping transactions from modules to the General Ledger. Custom report creation was impossible. My life was a labor of unceasing manual reconciliations, writing code to fix bugs, and DOS-based spreadsheets.

Finance Directors in Christmas Past were solely responsible for timely and accurate financial reporting, understanding and implementing the occasional GASB promulgations, and overseeing the Finance Department’s activities: accounting; budgeting; financial reporting; treasurer; utility billing; payroll; etc. Fiscal Stability was the goal of the Ghost of Finance Directors Past.

After this vision, I pleaded with the spirit to show me no more, to which the spirit replied:

“These are the shadows of things that have been. That they are what they are, do not blame me!”

The Ghost of Finance Directors Present was the second of the three spirits that visited me. The spirit transported me around the next two cities I worked at. He showed me scenes of IBM Silverlight hardware and municipal accounting packages that processed debits and credits with lightning accuracy; but required Crystal report writers to get information for financial presentations. Windows software and mouse manipulations made custom report creation possible. The spirit also showed me the day I bought desk-based PCs for municipal accounting. This launched the next transformation for Finance Directors

I saw how my career was transitioning from being an accountant wearing green eyeshades with a focus on conformance, to becoming a Finance Director with broad authority focusing on performance. While defining the metrics that track performance, I became more involved in the work of all other city departments. If the Public Works Director wants to hire an additional twenty staff to collect garbage, then the Finance Director helps write the cost estimate and justification. If the Parks and Recreation Director wants to raise the fee to reserve a soccer field, then Finance Director helps project revenue. By necessarily getting into other departments’ business, Finance Directors quickly achieve a deep knowledge of all city functions.

Now, not only was I ultimately responsible for maintaining the city’s financial data, but I was also the key trusted advisor to the City Manager and City Council. Fiscal Sustainability is the goal of the Ghost of Finance Directors Present.

The Ghost of Finance Directors Present then revealed that he will only exist on Earth for a single year’s holiday as the Present only occurs on one day of the year. He disappeared at the stroke of midnight on Twelfth Night, and left me to face the Ghost of Finance Directors Yet to Come, as it approaches “like a mist along the ground”.

The spirit led me into a world of virtualization where data is stored in the cloud, visualized and analyzed for performance management, and predictive, smart software guides strategic decisions.

The Ghost of Finance Directors Yet to Come showed me a Finance Director with four key characteristics: an all-encompassing understanding of the entire service delivery model, insight into business drivers (and the ability to communicate that insight to others), an eye for the right kind of talent, a facility for culture change, and the integrity and interpersonal skills needed to pull all these together.

Finally, the spirit told me the a great and successful Finance Director enable the City Manager to fulfill the City Council’s strategic vision. The Finance Director will be the organization’s key creator, enabler, preserver and reporter of strategic value and investment.

I awoke from my slumber, and unlike Scrooge who found the Ghost of Finance Directors Yet to Come as the most fearsome of the Spirits, my Finance Director Ghost showed me that Fiscal Resiliency is the Goal of the Ghost of Finance Directors Yet to Come.



Charlie Francis is a municipal finance expert. He has more than forty years of local government financial management experience in both the public and private sector, including twenty years of experience as a Chief Financial Officer. Most recently, he served as the Director of Administrative Services and Treasurer for the City of Sausalito where he earned the unofficial title of “OpenGov super user”.  He has also served as a finance manager for the Town of Colma, CA and as CFO and acting City Manager for the Cities of Indian Wells, CA and Tracy, CA.

Questions or comments? Email Charlie at .

Category: Government Finance

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