A Picture is Worth a Thousand Numbers

Doug Glenn

By Douglas A. Glenn, Deputy Chief Financial Officer, Department of the Interior

There is no doubt the Federal financial industry has made great gains in financial reporting since the passage of the CFO Act and Government Management Reform Act.  Material weaknesses are less than half of what they were in the mid-1990s and all but one CFO Act Agency has achieved an audit opinion.  I am extremely proud of our industry’s accomplishments.  What makes me even more proud is the unsung value our industry provides the American people.  The cumulative, government-wide, cost of the Federal Financial Community totaled billions of dollars including our IT and audit friends – critical partners in our industry’s success.  If you compare this cost to the total budget we execute, we cost less than 1/3 of 1% of the total.  I am confident that our internal controls, reconciliations, audit support, and other efforts have prevented Billions of dollars in fraud, waste, and abuse.  Just imagine the fraud, waste, and abuse that would occur if we weren’t reconciling, reviewing, comparing, approving, and reporting Federal financial activity.  We offer a significant return on investment to the American taxpayers and we take significant pride in that accomplishment.

Reporting is a key part of our community and with the recent passage of the DATA Act, there have been many discussions about what our industry reports as key financial data and an equally important consideration on how we report the information.  Typically we use spreadsheets and slide decks to share information but as fascinating as spreadsheets and slide decks are, they are cumbersome at best.  At the Department of the Interior (DOI), we are pushing the boundaries of communicating quantitative information and are fans of the concept that “A picture is worth a thousand numbers”.   For example, with one picture we can show where our 2013 expenditures went, who they went to, and what they were for (see http://www.doi.gov/pfm/afr/2013/maps/index.cfm).  It is a “heat map” of the United States where each State is shaded based on the DOI funding disbursed to that State.  If you run your cursor over a State, you can see the total expenditures to that State, the top object classes related to those expenditures, or who were the top recipients (i.e., vendors) of our disbursements.

To illustrate the value of pictures versus spreadsheets, I handed out the 60 row spreadsheet that supports the picture in the heat map noted above and asked a room of 25 accountants: “Who were the top 10 states receiving DOI disbursements?”  They dutifully scanned their spreadsheets and after 106 seconds, the first brave hand was raised and the accountant correctly answered the question.  Next a previously selected volunteer was pulled (back) into the room, shown the heat map, and asked the same question.  The one volunteer (versus 25 other accountants with spreadsheets) reached the same conclusion, to the same question, in 1/3 of the time.  Such is the power of pictures versus spreadsheets.

I am excited to see the great successes that await our industry and this country.  Will it be a clean opinion on the Financial Report of the United States?  Or will it be an accurate/useful transparency website for the public?  Or increased value to our agencies and the American people in general?  I encourage you to jump in and join me in making them a reality.