Comtrollership: Back to the (Office of the) Future

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Comptrollers are re-engineering their profession and they want us to know about it. They say they are at a, “Comptrollership CrossroadsWorking Smarter for Better Results.”

“Comprollership” may be well established and much appreciated, but it suffers from a very low profile. Comptrollers are driving both a new, more managerially grounded definition of the discipline, but they are also committed to making the management community better aware of its objectives and practices. Perhaps there is here an assumption that organizations will not only profit from the “new comptrollership,” but the challenges of comptrollership itself might be made more manageable if the awareness and understanding of colleagues is enhanced. “General” managers need to know more about comptrollership, and how it applies in the discipline of management.

As part of this process, I would like to help set the stage by relating a series of personal experiences that show where comprollership was in place (even though it may not have been identified as such) and where comptrollership very definitely was not in place. In the latter case I will not speculate on the consequences, but leave such only for the imagination of the reader. These experiences are all personal, and they are drawn from domains other than national government. My reasons for this are twofold: I hope to be able to focus on non complex events that will be thereby more illustrative; and of course, I want to be able to talk about situations that will not in any way reflect on people or situations with which I have had experience in the last decade and a half.

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Case Study 1

When I started in a new position in a new public sector organization my boss (and mentor) told me to take two weeks and walk around. This I did, and as he intended, I learned a lot about the organization – its people and practices. I chatted with one person who told me that her job was to submit on a weekly basis, long and complex reports on a particular activity. I noted this. Several days later I was interviewing the person to whom these reports were sent. When we were through, I  asked (really as an afterthought) what he did with the reports that were being sent to him from the person I interviewed earlier. He said he burned them. I was curious, needless to say. In response, he told me they were burned because the organization had stopped offering this particular service six years ago and tracking and submission (to a higher level of government) were no longer required. He suggested if I could find out who was sending them, could I please ask them to stop.

Case Study 2

I had the onerous task of presenting an annual financial plan to a shareholder’s meeting. It was onerous because the organization was faced with a number of options, a number of very difficult decisions, and the impact on the shareholders would be serious no matter which way they went. The financial team decided to present all the options to the floor. They were fully described and costed. They were not prioritized for, as we explained, it was essential that we not bring bias to the meeting because the decisions had to be made by those who “owned” the enterprise. The result was bedlam. Matters were not helped when one individual asked if all that was being proposed was “valid.” We assured the speaker that all the work was indeed valid; moreover, it was important and if it was not done this year it would have to be done eventually. Their job was to decide. The meeting ended in chaos with, as you might expect, the whole matter “referred back to staff for analysis and prioritization.” An honest attempt at stakeholder empowerment had failed.

Case Study 3

For a time I was involved in an initiative that had, as a key element, working for the retention and sustainability of an urban centre. This initiative was expressed in a number of projects directed at increasing activity (days and evenings); enhancing land use mix (residential and commercial); historic redevelopment; and several other areas. Our organization decided to launch the initiative – which incidentally, would mean no small return to the local municipality in terms of property taxes – by closing several core streets during the lunch hour and holding a street party for shop and office workers. We were prepared to underwrite all the costs – bands, food, clean-up and so on. When we received written authorization from the municipality, we were told that we would be responsible for the revenue losses experienced by the area parking meters for the duration of the event.

Case Study 4

I worked for an organization where a routine executive agenda item was the approval of cheques for release. Management was unsuccessful in convincing the executive team there was little relevance in rubber stamping commitments; nevertheless it was not unknown for a progress payment to be held up while staff researched the full history of a project. From time to time, late charges were sometimes incurred on multi-million dollar projects.

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Well, there you have it. Four very different experiences and, as you might imagine, pretty significant implications for organizations, events and individuals. These are not extraordinary circumstances – they are the sorts of conditions one can find in almost any organization. Though the three cases appear to be very different in issue and dimension, I would argue that there are consistent themes, and the need for comprolling is clear. This is a need for management where there are financial matters involved (are they not always?; where there are communications issues; where so much could have been alleviated perhaps had the right information been available; and sadly, where even when we might all collectively have the best of intentions, things still persist in going awry. What can be done?

 

 

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