Making Government Work Better

A CMFO program participant takes notes during a lecture

By Susan Robertson | Photos by Susan Robertson

In the words of Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Justin Wilson, the Certified Municipal Finance Officer (CMFO) program is a game changer.

The program, now in its 11th year, is a result of the Tennessee Certification and Education Act of 2007, which requires municipalities to have a chief financial officer who is a certified municipal finance officer or a qualified exempt individual. The Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS), an agency of the UT Institute for Public Service, worked with the comptroller’s office to develop the curriculum and to teach the courses. The first class of 100 participants graduated in 2010, and today more than 700 certified CMFOs work across the state after passing an 11-course curriculum.

“Local government accounting and finance is a specialized field that is changing at a fast pace, where professional certification and continuing education is a necessity,” Wilson says.

Since the passing of the 2007 act, the state’s Division of Local Government Audit has partnered with MTAS to establish a program that promotes financial management competency and helps municipalities across our state develop and recruit qualified municipal finance officers.

“To put it in the language of UT football, this program is a game changer,” Wilson says. “Our office’s mission is to make government work better, and the Certified Municipal Finance Officer program does just that.”

Since the beginning of the program, MTAS has received many positive reviews from the comptroller’s office to participants and municipalities. Participants agreed that the program increased their job-related knowledge and improved their daily performance. They also said they would definitely recommend the training program to others.

“Coming from the private sector and being new in governmental accounting, the program was tremendous for me,” says Crystal Givens, deputy comptroller for the city of Memphis. “If you work in accounting for the city of Memphis, they require that you complete this program and become certified.”

While accolades are nice, MTAS wanted to provide reliable research results on the effectiveness of the program. To test the success of the CMFO program, MTAS Grants and Training Specialist Chris Shults and Genoa Wolford-Bowling, a former public service intern, conducted a program impact analysis.

A participant in the CMFO program with an open book

“Not only was the CMFO program well received by participants, but the study showed that the program also improved municipal financial practices reflected in the reduced number of audited financial errors,” Shults says.

To analyze the effectiveness of the CMFO training program, Shults and Wolford-Boling examined the relationship between the number of audit findings in participating cities and the presence of a certified municipal finance officer.

“If the CMFO training program was successful, one would expect to see a decrease in the number of audit findings after a city’s chief financial officer became a CMFO,” Shults says.

They looked at audit findings for 60 cities for a six-year period, three years before the cities employed a CMFO and three years after employees earned the designation. The results showed the number of audit findings declined 44 percent, from 160 before the certification to 90 after receiving the certification.

They also developed a survey designed to determine the CMFO training programs participants’ thoughts about the training course and materials presented. Results show that participants in Tennessee’s CMFO training program highly value the program and that the program has had a significant impact on financial practices in municipalities.

“We are pleased with the program’s success and look forward to continuing to improve financial management and the accountability of taxpayer funds in Tennessee,” Wilson says.