Public sector: Heart of the action

As the private sector forges ahead and begins to climb out of recession, how
can the public sector with its cutbacks and cost savings win the battle to keep
and attract the best finance people?

Financial managers and accountants will have to place themselves at the
forefront of their organisation to ensure, as far as possible, that impacts on
vital frontline services are minimised. Their role will be to help form the
future strategy of their organisation, helping prioritise limited resources to
support core business services.

Peter Kane, director of performance and finance at the Home Office, says: “We
can attract and retain good staff by highlighting the scale of the challenge and
opportunities for the finance community over the next three to five years. It is
a chance to be at the centre of the action and to demonstrate that we can add
real value to our businesses. At the Home Office and in the wider public sector,
it is a time when some of the most exciting and interesting jobs will be
offered. We will need to be tough, resilient and agile in responding to the
demands now placed upon us.

“We have to challenge any impression that we are simply back office or an
overhead ­ not only is this bad for morale, but it ignores the fact that
frontline services can only operate effectively if they have outstanding support
from finance. We need to demonstrate that we are lean and add real value.”

Skills wanted
Financial staff will need to build closer links and relationships with their
colleagues, not least with procurement departments, to achieve maximum savings
while ensuring standards are maintained. The need for finance personnel to
communicate effectively will be essential as difficult choices have to be made
and explained to the public and those within the organisation.

Duncan Whitfield, FD at Southwark Council, says: “Recruitment presents new
challenges when the pressure is to downsize. However, new opportunities will
still be available within our new structures ­ we want senior finance managers
who can work closely with service managers. They will have to build solid
relationships and gain deeper understanding of services to make the best use of
the limited resources we have to deliver services.”

Kane continues: “We have to earn our place at the top table, we have to raise
our game making sure we have the right skills and the right knowledge at our
fingertips. We need to communicate in an effective way to ensure people engage
with us.”

Relatively speaking, accountants will be in a safe place as their skills will
drive the changes to save costs across the public sector. Particular skills
which will see greatest demand are:

* budget management;
* change management and experience of delivering major programmes of change; and

* resource accounting.

However, there will be a growing and much needed trend towards sharper, more
commercialised financial skills to ensure targets are achieved. The weaker
people will still be at risk as pressures mount to deliver the goods.

Less reliance on costly temps and interim accountancy staff will see a more
permanent mindset return and immediate cost savings will be achieved.

David Morgan is a partner at Morgan Law


As job security is now challenged, a more pro-active approach is needed
to go and seek out the best people, to scan the marketplace, to look more widely
at other sectors to find a better balance of experience and core skills from
other areas of the public sector. Many of the best people are very busy and are
not looking for a new job – they will need to be discovered. Specialist
recruiters will help to deliver this need.

Retention will become a problem in a year or two but not yet as most
people are looking for stability and will stay where they are for now. Even
interims are starting to consider permanent jobs in the middle management

John Headley, director of finance & information at Ashford and St
Peters NHS Trust, says it has not been difficult hiring from the private sector.
“While an element of this is due to a reduction in job security in the private
sector, I think people have a lot of good will towards the NHS and want to join
the service because it allows them to utilise their skills for a worthwhile


The much heralded public sector incentives such as flexi-time, maternity
and other holiday/leave packages are still hugely attractive to many
professionals. This lifestyle choice outweighs financial incentives offered by
the private sector and continued innovation in these areas will still ensure a
steady flow of the best people into the public sector.

Headley agrees: “Remuneration for senior finance staff in the NHS is not
uncompetitive. While there may be no annual bonus, pensions and annual leave are
good. It’s important to enable people’s work-life balance with flexible working,
family friendly working hours, etc.”

This point of view is by no means uncommon across the public sector
including local government. As Duncan Whitfield, finance director at Southwark
Council, comments: “We offer a range of soft incentives for finance
professionals at Southwark Council – a central location, excellent
accommodation, good quality facilities and flexible, remote working
arrangements. During these times, it is extremely difficult to contemplate the
development of enhanced financial packages.”

The savings target across the NHS is £20bn and everyone is aware of the
cuts coming their way. Local government continues to pursue annual efficiency
targets that become harder each year as service demands continue to increase for
children, the elderly, waste recycling and carbon reduction. Both political
parties have committed to a pay freeze, which could have a negative effect on
attracting talent from outside the sector, as potential candidates see little or
no financial incentive.

One of the biggest challenges in healthcare recruitment is that the
employer often demands 100% NHS experience and rarely look outside this sector
expertise. When faced with such a demand for cutbacks, it may make more sense to
‘grow your own talent’ – consider recruiting more effectively from other sectors
and invest in training and development programmes for staff.

Sometimes we see an endless game of musical chairs being played –
recruiting the same people from an ever decreasing circle of talent. The pool is
now going to be reduced which will make the problem worse. Fresher thinking with
new people may offer a more effective solution to provide the best workforce for
the future.

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