Public finance leaders aren’t just number-crunchers and bearers of bad (or good) budget news. They are all-in-one leaders whose value often transcends financial management.
Ask Kate Pfirman.
As the chief financial officer for the Georgia Department of Public Health, Pfirman manages a $650 million budget and oversees the offices of finance, human resources, facilities, and contracts and procurement.
She’s an advisor to the commissioner (a physician), a strategist in deploying public health measures, a diplomat with policymakers, and a host of other things that boil down to doing what has to be done.
“It’s hard to stay in the swim lane sometimes,” said Pfirman, who will be a guest panelist at the Center for State and Local Finance’s leadership training in May. “I swim out of the finance lane. When I see something not being done, I can’t let it fail.”
Pfirman, a 20-year veteran of state government, illustrates a growing trend in chief financial officers: It’s no longer enough for public finance leaders to know numbers, they have to know people, programs, policies and more. They have to be leaders first.
“I think it helps to work in a place where you’re passionate about the subject matter,” she said, adding that she’s fortunate to have a great team. “I can get pretty passionate about public health. I don’t see how you can’t be passionate about the health of citizens of your state.”
With a health department in every county, all of Georgia’s 10 million residents are relying on her to make decisions that improve the efficiency and effectiveness of public health services.
As a public finance leader, one of the most important things that she can do is to manage the taxpayers’ money judiciously. When she looks at programs, she keeps her eye on sustainability.
And, she asks: “Would we continue to do this if we did not have this federal grant, and how would we continue to do that?”
In addition to budget know-how, Pfirman also believes that public finance leaders need to be savvy in communication. Presentation skills, the ability to easily explain complicated topics, and getting to the point quickly are vital, she said.
Her go-to tenet: being a good listener.
“What I hope we do, and what I hope I do, is that I’m listening to the program folks,” she said. “I can’t really give them the best financial advice if I don’t understand their program, and where they’re trying to go.”
When the wants of program directors – or even her commissioner – are not fiscally feasible, she anticipates challenges, fleshes out cost arguments, and tries to have alternatives ready.
With all of the demands of public finance leaders, Pfirman advises others to view the onslaught as challenges and opportunities — rather than annoyances and problems.
You have to try to remain upbeat, she said, “which is hard to do sometimes because you’ll have that thing go wrong that you don’t think should have gone wrong.
“That’s not the time to question, ‘How’d this happen? Who did it?’ That’s later when you’re doing the analysis of how do we make this never happen again.”
Get more advice from Pfirman and other public finance leaders at the Center for State and Local Finance’s three-day leadership course. Registration is open through May 4.
(This article first appeared in the April newsletter of the Georgia Fiscal Management Council.)