Public sector jobs – the civil service jet set

‘Exciting working environment with excellent working conditions, benefits and unrivalled career development opportunities.’ How many of you would guess that an advert beginning like this was for a job in the public sector?

An easy target for humorists and comedians for decades, perceptions of the public sector still tend to revolve around bureaucracy, low salaries and old-fashioned working practices. And yet, accountants who can see past the often-wordy, black-and-white job adverts and weighty application packs may be surprised.

Last year’s Gershon Review ratcheted up the value of financial directors across all public services, placing greater emphasis on accountants who can demonstrate they can drive efficiency and gain added value from available resources, as performance management and delivery targets pin down managers to identifiable success.

The government’s modernisation agenda and the shift to income-maximisation and asset disposal, means that many of the most exciting challenges lie within the public sector, especially for those who can offer much-sought-after commercial skills.

The spending review heralded a move from generalist civil servants to well-rounded professionals with specialist skills in IT, procurement and finance. Going forward, government departments will replace principal finance officers with finance directors who must be qualified accountants and who will sit on the departmental board.

This professionalisation of the civil service means that government will be looking to recruit 30% of senior civil servants from the private sector by 2012. This move alone should result in a notable increase in salaries to attract these candidates in a competitive market. The Department for Constitutional Affairs recently advertised a salary of £140,000 for a new finance director.

These changes won’t happen overnight – careful succession planning will be necessary to help qualified professionals acquire specialist knowledge of the public spending process before they lead departmental budgeting discussions. But finance professionals now have a real chance to join the ‘top table’ in central government.

The major restructuring of the NHS, which concluded in April 2002, saw a massive increase in finance director and senior finance manager posts. Each primary care trust was set up with a chief executive and a director of finance at the top of the organisation, putting accountants at the heart of the NHS.

And yet many existing senior NHS finance staff do not have the relevant skills to maximise income streams. Increasingly important skills such as financial modelling, treasury, costing and risk management as well as supply and demand challenges and change management, are not ones traditionally associated with the public sector.

The picture in local government is slightly different. For many years, finance professionals have been climbing up the local government ladder. No longer viewed as ‘beancounters’, they have become an integral part of service delivery and, working alongside the chief executive, have taken on increasingly broad responsibilities such as performance management and property.

Ironically, it is this broadening of the finance role that now threatens to undermine the position of finance professionals in local authorities. A new, more generalist ‘director of corporate resources’ role has emerged, which increasingly requires broad management expertise in place of finance qualifications.

Management accountants are increasingly sought after for this role, and demand has succeeded in pushing up salaries in this area – corporate resource directors within county councils and unitaries now earn an average £83,000, according to the latest Hays figures.

The salary gap with the private sector is also closing – particularly for newly qualified accountants. And as private finance initiatives continue to blur the boundaries between the public and private, those candidates who have worked in both spheres will be in demand.

With 173 departments or agencies, more than 400,000 employees and the proposed relocation of 20,000 jobs outside of London and the southeast, it’s time for accountants to take another look at the civil service.

Andy Robling is national director of Hays Accountancy & Finance Public Services.

Related reading

The Practitioner