In this episode of the "All Things Financial Management" podcast, presented by the American Society of Military Comptrollers (ASMC) and Guidehouse, Debra Del Mar, Senior FM Systems Advisor, Office of Under Secretary of Defense for Financial Management/Comptroller, sat down with host Tom Rhoads to discuss her unique journey from the industry side to government service. The two discuss the Department of Defense's financial management strategy, its unique approach including a shared vision and the focus on accelerated progress. Del Mar also shares valuable lessons learned from the Marine Corps' migration to Defense Agencies Initiative (DAI) and offers advice for early career professionals.
Debra Del Mar: Good morning, Tom. I'm honored to be the guest on your All Things FM podcast, truly.
Tom Rhoads: Well, we're excited to have you and what we thought is maybe you could start by having you share with us your background and maybe talk to us a little bit about what brought you to your current position at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense Comptroller. Or in other words, Deb, maybe just share with us your story.
Debra Del Mar: Okay, great. Yes, I'd be happy to do that. So, my current position here at Comptroller is I'm the senior FM systems advisor, and I'll go into a little more detail on that, but I certainly am a fairly new public servant, and really, really honored to be able to serve and give back in that capacity. So, I grew up as a military brat and was deeply (obviously) involved in that military lifestyle, if you would. So, I am the beneficiary and the product of DOD schools and DOD healthcare and commissaries, PXs, lived on post, all of those things that come with being a military brat. And my father desperately wanted me to enter the military, but frankly I had kind of had it with moving around, as I'm sure many could identify with. So, I made a commitment to him and said, "Dad, I promise that I will serve the DOD from the industry side and try and make a difference in that regard." And he was very appreciative of that, because when you think about who ends up making things really happen in the DOD, it obviously is our uniform leadership, the military as our civilians, and then it's our industry partners counterparts, and it's those three that kind of make everything happen. So I served from that side for almost 35 years, focusing on business transformation, on FM modernization, and driving change. And I was at a point a couple of years ago where I was really, really interested in crossing that chasm and coming into government and serving and trying to help make a difference. And so, I got an initial opportunity to do that at the VA, which was wonderful, a very compelling and complimentary mission of course, to the DOD and driving business transformation there for the deputy. And then I got an opportunity from the DOD comptroller to come into the department and help both develop and drive their FM strategy and the execution of the strategy. So, it was just a gift. It was like I had spent my whole life sort of moving to this point of having this kind of an opportunity to help make things better. And so here I am and grateful for every day, wonderful mission, wonderful colleagues, very, very committed community here, and really sort of pushing the ball down the field.
Tom Rhoads: Well, I think you successfully met your commitment to your dad, and I for one definitely appreciate the service that you've provided and all the things that you've done. I know you've been very active in supporting the Department of Defense, so thank you very much. And as I read the fiscal year '22 to '26 DOD financial management strategy, which I believe is the first of its kind, this strategy comes across as a bold call to action, and it provides an overarching framework for standardization of approaches, especially in terms of tackling foundational root cause impediments to progress. Deb, can you share a little bit about these impediments from your lens and where you see we're making progress?
Debra Del Mar: Yes, I'd be happy to. And I am very, very passionate about this undertaking and very optimistic about the ability to deliver results for the department. And to your point, Tom, yes, it is unique. So, I've been involved in the past with DOD FM strategies, both here at Comptroller, I was an industry exec on an exchange program for a year for the CIO and worked here in DCFO. I was a part of the BMMP effort from the industry side early on and so forth. I worked with the Army on their FM strategy. But this one is truly different and that's why I'm so excited about it for a couple of reasons.
The first is that, to your point, it was officially signed out by both Honorable Accord, Honorable Miller, and supported and approved by all of the service VPs as well as the director of DFAS and the joint staff at J8. Now, why is that important? Well, it's important because there's a shared vision, there's shared priorities and goals, and there's a commitment to really work together for shared successes and rewards. And so that was never accomplished before.
The second thing is, it's not all things to all people. It very deliberately calls for accelerated progress. It calls for, again, focus on the wave top priorities that everybody shares, and we really need a collective approach to solve them. And it puts a timeframe on it, which again, I believe is so critical in terms of that forcing function to really drive implementation, drive outcomes. And so, when you put all of that together, it is that framework of, hey, here's what we want to achieve in five years, but here's the things that we really need to tackle together as a community. We need to resource those solutions and we need to implement them in a very streamlined standard approach. So that the benefit, not only for operations but also for audit, is really there. So, I like to think of this as we're, as a community, moving to the next level of providing strategic value as partners to deliver results. So, we're beyond the days of score keep and looking back and providing, looking back view, but really helping to lead and to partner to allow mission optimization. And as a part of that, we have made a very strong commitment, a verbal commitment to the diligent stewards of the taxpayer funds that are validated by audit, but it builds that public trust and it reduces the effort and the cost over time that we have been pursuing, which has been very taxing on the entire community, not just the financial community, but everybody that has a role in helping to support and achieve audit. So, at some point we will start to reduce the effort. It will be more automated. It will be more natural for us to do this, and we can repurpose a lot of effort and funds to maintain readiness and legality, which in particular in today's environment is so critical.
Tom Rhoads: Deb, in terms of strategic partnerships, I know one of the priority areas is reducing legacy systems and expanding compliant enterprise in ERPs. And I know you played a big part in supporting the US Marine Corps transition to DAI. From your point of view, what are the challenges you saw from the system migration?
Debra Del Mar: Yes, this was a wonderful opportunity to apply the tenants and the proven approaches that are embedded in the strategy, and most importantly, the execution plan for the strategy on the Marine Corps and their FM ERP, which is the Defense Agencies Initiatives (DAI). So, they were sort of the test bed or the incubator, if you would, for really having a burning platform. They had a two-year commitment to get to audit. And we knew that foundationally DAI would provide a good start to get them audit. I think Tom, you recall, they had been pursuing audit via their legacy system, Sabers, for probably 10 or 15 years, and it just would not cross the line there if there were just too many issues with that legacy system. So DAI, being a fully compliant solid ERP, offered them a wonderful standard platform from a solution and a systems' perspective. And embedded in that is all of the value that you get with using an ERP. And again, you'll hear me be very passionate about the strategic goals of reducing legacy systems, of expanding and using the ERPs appropriately. And by appropriately, I mean all of those end-to-end business processes that are embedded in the ERP. Use them to the greatest extent possible, use the preventative controls and the data standardization that the FM ERPs afford, don't rely on the backend reconciliations and compensating controls and all of that which are not auditable, and they really don't advance what we're trying to do here. So, the fact that the Marine Corps jumped in with both feet to move to DAI in such a short amount of time, the support that they had, both from their leadership, the DON leadership, the DFAS leadership, and OSD leadership to everybody to commit to focus on making this happen made a huge, huge difference. Now, will I tell you that this is a piece of cake or something? No. Part of the challenge is that the ERP is still immersed in a legacy environment. So, a lot of manual gaps, a lot of legacy systems, non-direct integration issues with data standardization, all of those things don't go away just because DAI in and of itself is an auditable compliance system. So that environment created a lot of challenges. The Marine Corps working with DFAS and the PMO and Advana as a great wrapper, ended up in many cases working through those, whether those were workarounds or so forth. But that really is our next challenge, is to look at the broader environment, look at those end-to-end business processes and try and use the ERPs the way they should be used, and quickly as possible, reduce the legacy systems that right now are causing a lot of complications without value and see if we can get to that next point of a really standard simplified FM environment that of course is technology driven, but it's standard based and it is auditable and operationally effective.
Tom Rhoads: Deb, based on your lead experience working through that migration, are there other lessons that other organizations can learn from the Marine Corps migration to DAI? Maybe even, it sounds like there was extreme power of focus on getting this goal accomplished and unity of direction and command and even communications, but are there some lessons that others could learn?
Debra Del Mar: Yes, there are. Actually, we are taking a knee for a little bit, everybody is, this has been a tremendous two and a half, three-year campaign, if I could use that term, right? But we are kind of regrouping here, but one of the key goals for the next handful of weeks is to really document the lessons learned, insights and so forth, that not only will help prioritize the Marine Corps things that need to get done for FY '24 and beyond, but that can be promulgated across the department for those organizations that are striving for audit and can really benefit from some of these, both insights and approaches and tactics.
The first one I would tell you absolutely unwavering leadership, resolve and command. So, the commandant stated upfront, we're doing this. He didn't just say it, he lived it. He had meetings with all of the key leaders from across the Marine Corps on a very, very regular basis. I want to say it might've been even biweekly for status, to remove barriers for accountability and for progress. And there's nothing that can replace that. That leadership resolve and commitment to outcomes.
The second thing that I think is very critical that the Marine Corps has done is a focus on materiality. They didn't sweat the little things. Everything was not important, because you know the old saying, right, everything's important, nothing's important. They focused on the areas of biggest bang for the buck. And we helped put in place what was called an Advana wrapper, where it was a wonderful compliment to DAI. DAI has a lot of ad hoc queries, it has standard reports, it has all the things that an ERP does that can help from the internals of the system. But what Advana did as the wrapper was provide the Marine Corps with what I call an audit lens. So it is that end-to-end view of all the systems that integrate, all the transactions, all the problem points along those end-to-end business processes so that they could laser focus their remedy efforts and their tiger teams on the areas, again, of the biggest problems and the biggest impact. And in their case, it was really focused on early on contract actions to make sure their obligations and everything were done properly. But then it became looking at those UMTs, those unmatched and really finding the source of those and working it in two regards. One was to decrease the balance of the ones that had occurred, and that was just through brute force. I mean, sheer people working day and night from both DFAS and Marine Corps side to get those balances down. And then the Advana lens showed the problems with the incoming, the inflow, and that's really what we're going to be looking at for FY '24 because if we don't tackle, again, that very, very complicated technical environment around DAI and work those legacy systems and processes and a lot of the lack of data compliance, it would be very difficult to sustain and audit it. And so that wouldn't help anybody if we have to continue the Herculean effort year after year. So, we've got to get back to those root cause problems, which are nothing that would surprise you, Tom, and especially in your leadership role, right? Lack of compliance with data standards, lack of compliance with handshakes, legacy systems, and all of those sorts of things that end up impeding correct GL posting logic. I mean, they all play a role and at the end of the day it doesn't match and then there is a bigger audit problem. So the focus on materiality, the strong partnership that the Marine Corps took with both DFAS, with the PMO, with the DON and with Comptroller, as well as with the auditors. So, a very, very productive and engaged relationship there so that they kept getting temperature checks at every step along the way to and correct where they needed to. And I think they did that all appropriately within the guise of how they really can interact with the auditors. And then they had a goal for, hey, perfection is not our friend here. We want to get a C. We don't want to get an A, we want to get a C because that's what we need at our first step, and we will assert because we believe we can support our JVs, we can have our balances and so forth. So, I think you can see from what I'm describing that it was an all in cultural and behavioral model that promoted getting it done, doing it right and being able to get to the point that the leadership expected. So really a lot of kudos over to them, and of course to the great integrated partnership with the other people that were so important to getting it that way.
Tom Rhoads: Thanks for sharing those observations, Deb, and for sharing your points of view. I think those are really impactful for other organizations. And in terms of your role within Comptroller, did you see or have experiences around or observations you could share with your role in teaming with the Marine Corps on this migration?
Debra Del Mar: Thank you, Tom. That is a great question. And yes, I would like to say that I think OSDC played a very pivotal role in terms of both leaderships, of arbitration where necessary, of sort of enforcement and accountability. And also, where needed, resourcing. So, for an example in the Advana wrapper that I spoke about a little bit earlier, that was a cell of experts that were provided by Comptroller through their Advana practice to the Marine Corps to deal with these very specific issues and allow a lot of these root causes to be visible. What happened, which is a wonderful success story, is that the Marine Corps leaned all in on Advana to the point where they provided broad access across their service at all of the command, the various command echelon levels and at headquarters, and they jumped in with both feet and they now have approximately 1500 Advana users. So, the dependency, it's like teach somebody to fish analogy. OSDC now plays a much less of an execution role because the Marine Corps has adopted it, adapted it, taken it on, and is using it to really, really improve operations as well as audit. But that's an example of where we stepped in to say, hey, we think there's value here. Bring Advana in. Bring a group of people that can help to teach and set everything up properly and then advise and counsel. And it's worked really great. And Ms. Miller has been so active in terms of that role of leadership and oversight, literally for the last year and a half. And she has met very frequently with the integrated team and the senior leaders to get a status update, to remove barriers when those come across. She has ended up actually issuing several memos and directives where needed to make the improvements in order to help the Marine Corps and what they were pursuing. And not just her familiarity and her engagement and interest, but her setting expectations for results has made a tremendous difference. So very, very proud of being a part of this, but the OSD leadership in this equation, I think, has also made a tremendous difference.
Tom Rhoads: Deb, I think you highlighted very well the power of collaboration and having so many organizations focused on this goal just made such a wonderful difference. So, thank you for sharing that. We like to wrap up each episode with some advice for our early careers that may be listening. So, Deb, knowing what you know now, what advice would you share with those who are just starting out their careers?
Debra Del Mar: Wow, that's just such a great question and thank you for asking that because I love to share a little bit in terms of what I experienced and how that might help others that are just starting out and thinking through what to do here. And I will be honest with you, so I was a chemistry major in college. I was going to go pre-med, and it got so laborious and so forth that I ended up pivoting to go into business and thinking, okay, maybe there's an avenue of technology and business and so forth.
Find Your Passion — If you are passionate about something for a profession or a career, you will be good at it. You will succeed.
Be Engaged — Be all into what you are doing. Volunteer for things, look for advancement where you can be open for opportunity. And think about the fact that sometimes opportunity isn't always moving up in the organization, but at times it is a lateral, horizontal move that will really broaden your network, your relationships, your skill sets, and so forth. Because I think what you'll find in our world here at FM, we are not a vertical stove-pipe, right? We very, very much have a very important horizontal role with our partners, whether that's with PNR, whether that's with ANS and so forth. And so having that knowledge often is very, very critical for somebody to further understand where they would like to go and how they might be able to pursue that.
Have an Informed Opinion — Now, by informed, I mean, take the time to understand the issues, see what might make sense and responsibly voice that where you're able to, because people admire that and that's important to build confidence and your competence.
Get a Mentor — You can get both official mentors and you can get informal mentors, organizations such as ASMC or other types of professional associations. But that is very, very helpful to have somebody not in your chain of command who can really advise and help course correct or answer additional questions.
Say What You Mean, Do What You Say — Say what you mean, do what you say, because one's word is really one's integrity, and that's how you build a strength of character, that's how you earn trust and respect. The two things that I would always tell my sons was, "Do it right or don't do it at all." And the second thing was, "Hey, you are where you are. A mistake has been made or whatever. It's what you do next that counts." And so, there's always an ability to come back, course correct and that sort of thing.
Give Back Where You Can — Get involved, volunteer, whatever, because that's another avenue to enter different communities of like-minded people and professionals, and you learn and grow both in terms of your relationships and the fun that you're able to have and the satisfaction in terms of both professional purpose and fulfillment.
So that's what I would say to any of the early careerists that are starting. And of course, the value of public service. There's nothing quite like it. I can honestly say from having sat on both sides of the aisle here. There's a purpose here that it's unparalleled, let me put it that way, in terms of serving the war fighters and serving our country.
About ASMC: The American Society of Military Comptrollers is the nonprofit educational and professional organization for individuals, military, civilian, corporate, or retired involved or interested in the field of defense financial management. ASMC promotes the education and training of its members and supports the development and advancement of the profession of defense financial management. The society provides membership, education and professional development and certification programs to keep members in the overall financial management community abreast of current issues and encourages the exchange of information, techniques, and approaches.
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