Interview: Constance E. Craig, the government's financial systems whiz

FMS foresees a Web-friendly future

Constance E. Craig
Photo by Rebecca Harmony, courtesy of FMS

Constance E. Craig is chief information officer of an agency that exchanges data with practically every federal agency.

The Financial Management Service is responsible for more than $2 trillion worth of financial transactions. At the Treasury Department agency, Craig spearheads the modernization of governmentwide accounting and debt collection services.

She has a keen understanding of the inner workings of the agency; she began her federal career there as a computer systems analyst in 1980.

From 1984 to 1990, she was director of FMS' Computer Services Division. From there, she went to work at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. developing systems. She returned to FMS in 1994 as assistant commissioner of information resources.

Craig received a bachelor's in psychology from the University of Maryland and is a graduate of the Federal Executive Institute.

GCN staff writer Shruti Dat' interviewed Craig at her Washington office.

GCN:'Can you give an overview of the most significant information technology projects on the table at the Financial Management Service?

CRAIG: We have in FMS four major business areas, and we have modernization going on in all of those areas. We are using electronic commerce and the Internet to improve how we do business.

In the payments area, we disburse more than 880 million payments for the government. We are working to enhance our electronic certification system. That's a system agencies use to create, send and certify requests for check and direct-deposit payments.

We are trying to take advantage of new technology and put in place stronger security. We also want to be able to use the Internet.

The other thing going on in the payments area is we are fundamentally redesigning systems. When we went through the Y2K effort, we moved payments from old hardware to a new platform, but we really did not take advantage of new database technology. We're still using flat files for a lot of things. We are going to put energy into modernizing these systems and using the Internet to some extent.

Another area is debt collection. We have a system in place that today matches federal payments against delinquent debt owed to the federal government and delinquent child support payments. Last year, we collected $2.6 billion through that program.

We are expanding that system to include additional types of payments, such as benefit payments and federal salaries, and we are also going to enhance that to offset tax debt.

We would be able to match a student debt against a refund that you might be getting from the IRS. In the future, if you did not pay your taxes and you were getting a government payment, we would offset that payment from what you owed Uncle Sam.

The third area is governmentwide accounting. We are the central reporting agency for the government. We put out the monthly Treasury statement on the deficit or surplus. We do an annual report of the official receipts and outlays. The underlying system has not been changed in about 20 years. We have undertaken an initiative to modernize that system and the underlying processes to make life easier for the agencies.

Today we capture information from agencies four or five different times. We want to streamline that so we only capture it once, at the earliest possible moment. They should not have to go through a burdensome reconciliation process. We want to give agencies an accounting of their funds balance with the Treasury, like a personal bank statement.

This is a big effort because we are really talking about the way we do business. Because it will take a number of years to accomplish, we are looking at opportunities in the short term to take advantage of the Internet and Web to provide access to data in our legacy systems, which agencies cannot get to today. We expect to put that in place this fall with agency pilots.

The fourth business area is collections. We process the collection of the government's revenue. We manage work with the IRS to collect taxes and the Customs Service to collect duties. We collected about $2.1 trillion last year.

We are redesigning our system that receives, processes and maintains deposit data that federal agencies maintain with financial institutions. So if you want to see what activity you've had you can use the Internet to see your fund balance and deposit.

I keep talking about the Internet. In general, what we are trying to do is take advantage of that technology to put middleware software up front so it looks like we have redesigned existing legacy systems. When I talked about the governmentwide short-term government accounting initiative, we are going to pull data out of legacy systems, reformat it and provide it to our customers more quickly using Web technology.

GCN:'How old are FMS' systems?

CRAIG: Some of the payment systems, even though we rewrote them for Y2K, run on modern technology platforms, but the design of the systems is from the 1970s. Some of them are computer-tape-based.

When I talk about the payment system, we don't use computer tapes. I receive those files electronically, but I read a sequential flat file as opposed to a more modern database technology.

I don't think it is hindering what we do today. Our record on payments is about 99.9 percent accurate and on time with 880 million payments a year. What I do think is we can do our jobs better and less expensively. We can make the systems easier to use.

GCN:'Why is modernization needed?

CRAIG: In data processing you have to modernize every few years. So, it was not a revelation; it was on the drawing board. Y2K took energy for a year or two, so we did not do much with the modernization. We just wanted to make sure we survived.

GCN:'When were the systems for the four major areas last updated?

CRAIG: It's different for each system. For example, the Treasury Offset Program systems came about as a result of the Debt Collection Act of 1996. It's new and has only been in place a couple of years. We are just expanding on its capabilities.

The payment systems are old; they were written in the 1970s. They were revised in the 1980s, but they are pretty much flat-file systems.

Our major focus is on the government accounting systems. This fall we will be rolling out some systems that take advantage of the Internet.

GCN:'What IT challenges does FMS face in processing the government's financial transactions?

CRAIG: Probably the biggest challenge for us is that we play a really central role in the government. We do work for just about every program agency. They are required by law to report all accounting information to us, and we disseminate that information.

We make 85 percent of the federal government's payments. We have an opportunity'and the difficulty'to change the overall system because there is a ripple effect.

If we don't do something, it is going to impact all those agencies that interface with us. There is an opportunity for us to change how the government does business. If we can take advantage of e-commerce and the Internet to make changes, it may help the agencies that work with us.

GCN:'How does FMS plan to promote interoperability?

CRAIG: I focus on scalability and flexibility, being able to build a small system and grow that system. I should be able to take advantage of open standards so if I am interfacing with agency X, I am using what's out there in the industry so I can interface with that agency.

I should not use some off-the-wall standard, which would require every agency that interfaces with FMS to modify its systems dramatically.

We try to use commercial, off-the-shelf products as much as possible because obviously they are cheaper to maintain over time. Sometimes our requirements are unique, and we just can't. We have a mixture.

For example, our payment systems are written internally. In large part, each of the agencies we make payments for has unique requirements based on their missions.

GCN:'What computer security plans are on the table?

What's More

  • Age: 52
  • Pets: Skeeter, an English setter
  • Car: Acura
  • Last book read: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Favorite Web site: ", of course!"
  • Leisure activity: Golf

CRAIG: We have today an entitywide security program in place. That is not static. We are trying to improve it all the time. We have set up internal auditing processes, where we will find out where we can penetrate our networks ourselves'before a hacker out there does.

We plan to expand that program next year with contractor help to do risk analysis and plug any holes. We plan to build out our backup and recovery capability.

We take it very seriously because we have such a central role.

GCN:'Has FMS faced problems retaining and attracting IT personnel?

Yes, we have had problems in recruiting and retention. It is hard to attract the young folks because the government just does not pay as much as the private sector. We have been using recruitment bonuses and paying some retention allowances.

Well over half in the IT shop can retire in five years. We can't match the salaries in the private sector even with retention and recruitment bonuses, but the government does offer some nice benefits.

You can do something for your country. Working for your country'maybe it's one of those weird things people don't think about anymore. If you can make a difference in how the country operates, I think that's worth something. If you are after the almighty buck, you will not end up working for us.

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