Philip McKinney: Leading by going against the grain

When Philip McKinney arrived at the federal judiciary system from the Interior Department in 1995, it was as if he had stepped back in time. The way the federal system’s 94 courts accounted for money, it might as well have been 1795. And for the most part, people accepted the anachronism.

“It was all manual,” said George Schafer, chief financial officer at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, referring to financial systems that reflected 200 years of judiciary tradition and policies.

The challenge for McKinney, the judiciary system’s chief accounting officer, was persuading 94 highly independent courts to jettison an antiquated system and embrace change. A dozen years later, the judiciary’s financial-management system has been modernized, standardized and automated. McKinney succeeded in areas in which others had failed, in large part because he established a process for changing a culture that had been stubbornly resisting change.

On his arrival, McKinney found that financial-management practices varied widely in the federal judiciary. One large court was using a typewriter to issue as many as 300 checks daily that were worth millions of dollars. Elsewhere, money collected at an intake counter was placed in a cigar box. Another large court had developed a financial-management system by color-coding spreadsheets with Magic Markers.

However, the courts weren’t eager to do things differently, and McKinney had no authority to compel them to change. He could only persuade them. “The judges run the judiciary. They don’t have to do what they don’t think is necessary,” said McKinney, whose task was made more difficult by a series of failed attempts to overhaul the courts’ financial management. “This was the last effort that was going to be tolerated.”

The system’s modernization, McKinney determined, would have to be an inside job.

“It was important that I learn the culture and hierarchy and the formal lines of authority and the informal lines,” McKinney said. “I sought out key respected staff in the judiciary…and worked with them and their financial people to paint the vision.”

A critical part of that vision was to adopt commercial applications and forgo developing customized software, an approach that had failed in the past. Involving key staff members in that decision helped McKinney secure an endorsement of his plan from the primary policy-making body of the U.S. Courts, the Judicial Conference.

“Getting that endorsement brought a lot of credibility to the project,” he said.

McKinney had a methodology for smoothing the courts’ transition to the new financial-management system. Critical staff members at each court attended a mandatory weeklong class to review the implementation process, technology issues and change management. After returning home, participants assessed the readiness of their courts, which had to be certified for transition before implementation could begin.

The initiative came to be known as the Financial Accounting System for Tomorrow, or FAST. However, the implementation was anything but, skeptics said.

To further facilitate the transition, McKinney created a mentoring program. Courts that had adopted the new system helped other courts get up to speed. Establishing such a peer network brought instant credibility that McKinney said he lacked. “Nobody trusts anybody from Washington,” D.C., he said.

Pulley is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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