Standing up for accountants in the public sector can be a lonely business. Politicians of all stripes have demonised the profession to make cheap points that please the crowd. In health, they are bureaucrats, absorbing resources that should be spent on patient care. In local government, they get the blame for cutting services and jobs.
Both caricatures are as wrong and unfair as they are popular. You only have to look at last week’s National Audit Office report on National Savings to see what poor accounting can do. According to the NAO, National Savings cannot reconcile its #63bn accounts. Yet, when pressed by the Public Accounts Committee, the National Savings chief executive said he did not see why the finance director of its operational division needed to be a qualified accountant.
Old Whitehall attitudes die hard. After generations of Oxbridge classicists, the civil service finds professionalism hard to take. Not so long ago, the social security department – biggest of public spenders – had only one qualified accountant.
In the NHS, at least, good accounting has a champion. Colin Reeves, finance director of the NHS Executive, is certainly a realist. But his warning last week that jobs might be lost should not obscure his commitment to developing the professionalism of those who stay. The rest of the public sector needs to demonstrate that it values its accountants, without whom none of its caring work could be done.
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