The commercial sector has long been a popular hunting ground for Britain’s
public sector to locate new finance executives and, in recent years, the trickle
has turned into a steady stream.
The so-called professionalising finance agenda aims to bring more qualified
accountants into the public sector, and government departments know exactly
where to find a good supply. While the aim of making the public sector as
efficient as its private counterpart is laudable and the agenda is sound, this
trend brings with it both its benefits for the recruiting departments, but also
potential challenges for those moving into the sector. But what are the pros and
Looking at the advantages, it is clearly valuable to secure individuals from
the private sector who bring with them a wealth of experience. Finance
professionals who have delivered large, complex transformational programmes can
bring a fresh commercial ‘way of working’ to the public sector, which is eager
to meet efficiency targets and help shape the future of finance ahead of the
government’s next spending review.
Furthermore, finance directors who move from the private sector are likely to
have experience in working with external advisers on improvement programmes.
Experience of this kind can offer significant benefits to government departments
in developing the commercial arrangements that underpin these external service
agreements. This experience will help to manage the relationship more
effectively to deliver the planned benefits and reach departments’ longer-term
LIFE IN BALANCE
It’s clearly an exciting time to work in government. The major change
initiatives can offer individuals a new path, direction and focus in their
careers, together with what some would consider a more acceptable work-life
balance. On the flip side, from the individual’s point of view, the public
sector culture can pose some challenges in terms of fitting in. The
decision-making process can at times seem a slower and more inclusive process
and this can be somewhat frustrating.
Couple this with the expectation that civil servants change jobs every three
to four years and it raises the question – do job rotations work in this
environment? Does this add to the public sector’s woes and perpetuate the need
for skilled finance practitioners with extensive experience? Could it be time to
review this model?
Within the commercial world, individuals with deep skills and experience of
doing a job are rewarded and indeed incentivised to stay in their roles, keeping
knowledge within the department and creating long-term advantage.
Looking more closely at individual skill sets, it’s important to consider
whether private sector finance professionals have the training and ability to
build and equip multidisciplinary teams? Can they import the private sector’s
performance and service levels, while maintaining the public sector’s social
What skills are critical for a finance director to succeed?
Clearly, exceptional networking skills and the ability to think
strategically, whilst keeping an eye on the detail, are must-haves; not to
mention a lot of patience and an acceptance that there may often be different
ways of working, rewarding individuals and getting results than one might be
It may take some time to adapt but, in the long-term, moving to the public
sector should present enormous opportunities to influence, and in some cases
invigorate, the public sector with new ways of thinking and new ways of working.
Overall, the stream of private-to-public appointments is likely to and should
continue. The government’s commitment to overhauling Britain’s public sector
makes it both an attractive and an exciting place to work. However, anyone
contemplating making the change should not forget the real contrasts between
Britain’s private and public sectors. But there are clearly enormous career
opportunities to deliver long lasting change for those making the leap.
Moved: Mary Keegan
One of the highest profile moves from the private to public sector was the
recruitment of Mary Keegan to the Treasury in 2004. Keegan was appointed as
managing director of financial management, reporting and audit, a board-level
position, succeeding Sir Andrew Likierman, who took up a post at the London
Business School after ten years with the government.
Keegan moved from being chairman of the Accounting Standards Board, having
previously been a partner at Big Four firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, where she was
responsible for the firm’s global corporate reporting group.
Gus O’Donnell, permanent secretary to the Treasury, said at the time that
Keegan was ‘one of the most talented, influential and experienced people in UK
finance’ and had been recruited ‘to drive forward financial management and
reporting in government’.
Keegan has since tightened financial controls and reporting at the Treasury
and filed the department’s year end accounts within three months of close last
year, a first for the department.It’s a goal she wants to achieve forevery
Moved: Barbara Moorhouse
Last September, Barbara Moorhouse was recruited as director-general of
finance for the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA), with responsibility
for the department’s £3.3bn budget, and for all financial issues.
An executive who took up her first group finance director appointment in
1997, she was chief finance officer for technology companies Kewill Systems and
Scala Business Solutions. She was part of the team that sold the company to
Epicor Software Corporation in 2004.
Moorhouse had some prior experience of public sector work as she had served
as a non-executive director of the Child Support Agency.
Alex Allan, the DCA’s permanent secretary, said Moorhouse’s recruitment was
‘a top-drawer appointment for the department’, adding that she had ‘an
outstanding track record in improving financial performance and providing
strategic guidance at board level’ and would help the department ‘focus on
delivering high-quality public services and achieving value for money’.
She succeeded Simon Ball, who left for the private sector, taking up the
position of group finance director at 3i Group.
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Head of editorial Kevin Reed discusses this week's important accountancy news, including Brexit and audit market evolution