Writers: Roger Nielsen and Shannon Ferguson

A financial training curriculum developed by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government has grown into a high-demand course for Georgia’s state and local governments, as well as for public and private finance professionals across the United States and around the world.

The financial management certificate program was initially designed to meet the educational needs of finance officers who work for local governments in Georgia. The program, managed by Institute faculty member and certified public accountant Tracy Arner, has issued more than 4,000 certifications since its inception in the 1970s.

The financial training that Arner and other Institute faculty deliver around the state was developed for traditional classroom instruction but was later expanded to include online modules.

When converting the courses for the Internet in 2003, faculty retained Georgia-specific content but also made sure the fundamental finance and accounting topics would appeal to a wider audience. Arner realized that much of the program curricula could be presented in “chunks” to teach fundamental concepts. This led to the creation of web-based “tutorials” to communicate these concepts and to introduce problem-solving tools into the program’s accounting classes.

The addition of an online financial training curriculum not only made training more accessible to local finance officers, but extended the Institute’s reach beyond Georgia’s borders, with training participants from 43 states and nine foreign countries.

The dozen online courses that the Institute offers in partnership with the University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education allow public finance officers to enhance their professional knowledge at their own pace without time-consuming and expensive travel. Rising enrollment and revenue encouraged the Institute and the Georgia Center — two of UGA’s Public Service and Outreach units — to continue expanding the curriculum and to explore new teaching methods such as blending classroom teaching with online education.

Today, local government officials and personnel can earn Level I Local Finance Officer Certification through traditional classroom instruction, entirely online or through a combination of the two. And now, individuals and companies around the world are enrolling in this innovative curriculum, according to Institute faculty member Myra Byrd, who helped develop and update the curriculum and bring it online.

Clients include a California accounting firm, whose new employees enroll in the Institute’s online courses to strengthen their knowledge of governmental accounting practices. “These are people we would have never reached without our online program,” Byrd said.

Enrollees also include people like Deena Thompson-Stalder, a county government human resources analyst who plans to enhance the attractiveness of her MBA by strengthening her government finance and accounting expertise through the Institute’s courses.

“In our county, to be competitive you need governmental budget experience. I have little opportunity to get that experience in my current job, so I’m filling that gap by taking some of the Institute’s online courses,” Thompson-Stalder said.

“Our primary goal is to provide continuing education for Georgia’s public and elected officials,” said Laura Meadows, the Institute of Government’s director. “Our economical online courses allow them to keep building their skills in an age of limited budgets, but we still offer traditional instruction for those who want it.”

The same innovative thinking that went into developing the online coursework has been used to create customized financial management programs for library systems in Georgia, Mississippi and Texas; Georgia state government agencies; and, most recently, Georgia’s charter schools.

“The foundation of the financial curriculum developed early on for cities and counties can be customized to meet the specific needs of our clients,” said Arner.

An example of this customization is the new program developed in partnership with the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget (OPB). Working with Georgia’s Chief Financial Officer and OPB Director Teresa MacCartney, Arner and other faculty are developing a state-specific curriculum based on the Institute’s primary governmental accounting series. Faculty are researching Georgia policies and laws and will focus the coursework on the state’s budget and fiscal management cycle.

“I’m not aware of any other financial management programs offered by a public or private group that provide the kind of comprehensive training we do,” said Stacy Jones, director of the Institute’s Governmental Training, Education and Development division.

The success of the Institute’s online courses inspired collaborations with kindred organizations like the Georgia Government Finance Officers Association (GGFOA). The Institute worked with GGFOA to create webinars that allow association members to earn continuing education credits.

“If you miss a presentation, you can access it from our archived library of resources and receive credit,” said Institute faculty member John Hulsey, who this fall earned the GGFOA’s President’s Award for his work with the association.

The most recent expansion of the financial management curriculum includes Arner’s work with the Georgia Fiscal Management Council (GFMC) to incorporate professional development programming. Arner’s efforts with GFMC recently earned her the organization’s President’s Award.

According to Arner, Institute faculty plan to keep innovating: online courses for government human resources professionals and members of county boards of equalization as well as new “blended learning” courses, a hybrid of classroom instruction with a web-based final exam.

“The Institute is committed to getting resources into the hands of those who need them most through cutting-edge professional development opportunities,” said Arner.