Sir Peter Kemp – Come on, let’s all be friends!

Yet again we find the government going on about the need for more and better accountants within the public services. And, more or less at the same time, we see the English ICA’s 2005 Group Report pointing out that the accountancy services in the public sector should be one of the growth areas for members of the profession.

On the one hand we have a need which would benefit the public services and the State, and on the other a supply which would benefit the profession. A familiar story. So we ask, what is being done about it this time?

True, there are some big gaps to be bridged. The public service, particularly the central civil service, doesn’t understand, or at least until recently didn’t understand, the value of accountants.

It doesn’t pay accountants well, and doesn’t give them much status. And again, until recently, public-service work has tended to be rather boringly based on cash accounting or cost-and-works-style accounting. On the other side, the accountancy professional bodies don’t tell their members or would-be members much about the public services, and indeed one sometimes thinks they don’t know a lot about it.

Civil servants are boring types with whom no self-respecting and ambitious young person should take a job – this has been the picture for many years. But now there is a chance for a fresh approach. The government is moving towards private-sector-style accounting in many areas – the resource accounting exercise, Next Steps Agencies and the like, and the new Public Service Agreements, and of course the perception that the private sector can deliver public services just as well as the public sector.

So they are going to be looking for private-sector skills. And this message is going to get through to the private sector, so that hopefully more individuals will come to understand and want to join the public services, for both professional interest and as a contribution to society – and because it is going to be essential career experience.

How to speed it up? Both sides have to move. The public service has to make itself more attractive to private-sector accountants by way of pay, career prospects, job satisfaction and prestige.

The private sector has to so organise itself to make its people more employable, better respected in the public sector, and more understanding of it. There is the prospect of a virtuous circle here. A broadening of vision on the part of both public-sector managers and private-sector institutes could work wonders for everybody.

Sir Peter Kemp is chief executive of the Foundation for Accountancy and Financial Management.

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