Linda Combs | OMB banking on financial upgrades

Interview with Linda Combs, Office of Management and Budget controller

When President Bush nominated Linda Combs to be the next Office of Management and Budget controller, the confirmation process was almost second nature to her.

Combs, a former chief financial officer at the Transportation Department, had gone through the process four other times.

She plans on tackling many of the same issues that occupied her predecessor, Linda Springer, who now is the director of the Office of Personnel Management. These include reducing the amount of improper payments agencies make, helping agencies improve their financial performance and close their books within 45 days after the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year. She also will help rejuvenate the Grants Management Line of Business Consolidation initiative and develop standards for the Financial Management Line of Business effort.

Before coming to OMB, Combs oversaw Transportation’s $57 billion budget and implementation of the Government Performance and Results Act.

She also was CFO at the Environmental Protection Agency for two years and worked for the departments of Education, Treasury and Veterans Affairs.

Combs holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Appalachian State University of Boone, N.C., and a doctorate in educational administration from Virginia Tech University.

She’s married to David Combs, acting CIO at the Agriculture Department. GCN assistant managing editor for news Jason Miller interviewed her recently.

GCN: A lot of progress has been made over the last four years on agency financial management. What are your priorities in the short term?

COMBS: The administration’s overarching financial management priority is to ensure that each agency has accurate and timely financial data available on a daily basis to drive results in key performance areas. The short-term goal is to build the foundation for accurate and timely reporting. In the President’s Management Agenda initiative for improving financial performance, this foundation is captured in the yellow standards of success.

Some specific short-term goals:
  • Increase the number of agencies receiving an unqualified audit opinion on their financial statements. Last fiscal year, 18 of the 24 Chief Financial Officers Act agencies received unqualified opinions on their financial statements.

  • Have all 24 agencies submit their financial statements by the reporting deadline of Nov. 15. Last fiscal year, 22 of the 24 CFO Act agencies completed their financial statements by Nov. 15.

  • Strengthen management accountability for internal control by implementing the revised financial control requirements in the [Office of Management and Budget Circular] A-123, which are similar to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act requirements for managers of publicly traded companies.

  • Increase the number of agencies that have modern financial systems that support program management and are in substantial compliance with the Federal Financial Management Improvement Act.

GCN: And the long term?

COMBS: The administration’s long-term goals are to improve internal controls as well as to produce accurate and timely financial information that managers use for decision-making and performance improvement. For example, better controls and information will assist in reducing improper payments $25 billion by 2009, and by disposing of excess property that’s no longer needed or costly to maintain. Initial projections indicate that the size of the federal real property inventory can be decreased by 5 percent or $15 billion by 2009.

GCN: Your predecessor, Linda Springer, led the Grants Management Line of Business effort. What will your involvement be and what are the next steps? I’ve heard it has been dormant since last January.

COMBS: My staff is working closely with the OMB E-Government Office and the new CFO Council Grants Policy Committee chaired by the National Science Foundation.

OMB has named Health and Human Services Department and NSF as the co-managing partners for the Grants Management Line of Business implementation, and our goal for the remainder of 2005 is to identify three consortia providers to begin solution planning and alignment for 2006.

[Late last month], the partners issued a request for each agency to declare its intent to either lead a consortium or participate in a consortium as a member. Responses in the form of a declaration of intent [were] due Sept. 9.

In addition, the task force developed a business case and submitted it to OMB in September 2004. OMB approved the business case in October 2004, which included a recommendation for consolidation of other governmentwide grants streamlining efforts. In response to this recommendation, I have worked with the CFO Council to establish the GPC to serve as a coordinating and advisory body for grant policies.

GCN: How will your office, or the CFO Council, help agencies make an easy transition to the financial management centers of excellence under the Financial Management LOB?

COMBS: My staff is working closely with the OMB E-Government Office and has developed a due-diligence checklist to assist agencies in evaluating and selecting both public and private COEs. We will continue to work closely with agencies in developing their requests for proposals and service level agreements.

We also are working with the CFO Council in establishing something similar to a configuration control board as well as creating a standard business processes committee to assist in standardizing and simplifying financial systems to make the convergence to a COE more transparent.

A critical success factor is that all the stakeholders understand their roles and responsibilities. To do so, we are reaching out in the following ways:
  • Having meetings, briefings, and other discussion forums with the CFO, CIO, and acquisition communities.

  • Incorporating systems and business process initiatives, as appropriate, into the various requirements of the President’s Management Agenda.

  • Modifying OMB policy and guidance as necessary to support the consolidation and standardization approaches.

GCN: What are the next steps to continue to decrease the amount of improper payments agencies are making?GCN: Does the administration support Congressman Todd Platts’ (R-Pa.) effort to consolidate the amount of legislative financial requirements placed on agencies?

COMBS: The administration is extremely supportive of the effort to consolidate and streamline the legislative financial requirements placed on agencies.

The administration has emphasized the need to integrate current statutory and regulatory requirements placed on agencies in the revised OMB Circular A-123, Management’s Responsibility for Internal Control.

GCN: In the PMA score cards, financial management has the most red scores. What is your office doing to improve agency scores? In what areas are agencies facing the biggest challenges?

COMBS: Agencies are making steady progress in meeting the PMA’s financial management standards of success. What sets the financial management initiative apart from other initiatives is that a majority of the yellow standards of success are based on what is reported in the annual financial statement audit.

However, if an agency fails to meet a yellow standard of success, it must prepare and submit a corrective action plan on how it will meet that standard. OMB monitors corrective actions quarterly, and progress ratings typically reflect whether an agency is proceeding according to its plan of action.

Areas requiring the most attention include resolving long-standard material weaknesses by strengthening internal controls over financial reporting, as well as implementing modern financial systems to support program management and accountability needs.

GCN: Now that you’ve been through the confirmation process five times, what’s the best part of it?

COMBS: Finishing it for the fifth time and being able to begin work!

About the Author

Connect with the GCN staff on Twitter @GCNtech.


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