CIPFA Penna – Future skills of finance professionals in the public sector

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06 Dec 2017

CIPFA Penna – Future skills of finance professionals in the public sector

CIPFA Penna – Future skills of finance professionals in the public sector

CIPFA Penna were kindly asked to run a session for delegates attending the CIPFA North West Conference. Our brief was to look at the future skill sets that finance professionals in the public sector would require. Through the senior-level recruitment we carry out for many public bodies, we receive a wide range of briefs detailing what our clients desire in their ‘ideal candidate’ and what background these people may come from.

In particular the world of local government finance professionals is changing dramatically. Seven years of austerity have changed the shape of organisational structures in local authorities but also the remit that sits under an FD. This in turn has shaped recruitment and how we asses candidates. The challenge moving forward is how to predict what skills a finance professional will need in two or five years’ time and how to identify them.

Rather than giving our view to delegates, we thought it would be better to see how it felt on the ground and what skill sets they felt were required. To do this we asked three main questions:

  • How have you seen the role of an FD change in the last five years and how do you see it changing in the next five years?
  • What is the role of a FD in the commercialisation agenda?
  • How has the interface with members and external stakeholders changed the skill set of a finance professional?

 

The responses we received tied in nicely to the other research we have carried out and the themes we are seeing emerge.

The changing role

This is something we have spent a lot of time looking at. In addition to sessions like this, we have interviewed and filmed a number of finance professionals to get their views. (These videos can be found on the CIPFA Penna website, www.penna.com/cipfa-penna/ .)

The themes that emerged from Friday were:

 

  • A need to be commercially savvy
  • A need to be innovative and to empower staff to think of new solutions to existing problems
  • A move away from focussing on pure technical accountancy and towards more strategic thinking
  • A move away from a stewardship role and into an enabling role
  • Delegating financial control away from the FD to enable more space and time for strategic thinking, but balancing this with the requirements of being a section 151 officer and ensuring the numbers are double and triple checked.
  • Being a place based leader and not just an FD

In addition to this, delegates felt there was a growing trend of downgrading the role of FD so that it no longer sits at the top table.

Commerciality in finance professionals

There has been a lot said about what commercial means for each local authority and each finance professional. The overriding focus is around risk management. Being commercial is not about taking risks but more about balancing risk to ensure that council services are not impacted in the short term by the move to more commercial ventures.

We have seen a massive increase in the demand for permanent hires into Commercial Director posts and on an interim basis a demand for professional advice from ‘commercial experts’. Often, our clients are looking for people from outside the public sector in order to buy in the expertise and knowledge.

This presents another question about whether public sector professionals can be ‘commercial’ and whether everyone from the private sector is a ‘commercial expert’. The answer to this is far too complex to cover within this piece but I definitely think we should question and interrogate presumptions in this area. There are pockets of good and bad practice in both public and private sector.

Either way, public sector finance professionals of the future will need to be commercial and organisations should be supporting their workforce in developing this attribute if they don’t already possess it. Support can take the shape of CIPFA training products around finance business partnering or the use of external advisors to provide short-term support in upskilling and developing finance teams.

Stakeholder management

The stakeholder set of FD and finance professionals in local authorities is shifting rapidly. It isn’t just about the relationship with the boss, the Leader or the Lead Member. FDs have always needed to work across leadership teams to build accountability for budgets, and influencing skills are tested in this environment. Understanding the business and how it operates are vital skill sets for modern FDs, along with enabling services by working in partnership with them. As mentioned previously, it shouldn’t just be about financial stewardship but also problem solving and unlocking resources in different ways.

Add into this the new range of stakeholders and systems that local authority finance professionals are immersed in. Mayors, Combined Authorities, health and social care integration, external service providers, joint venture partners, commercial spin outs, Children’s Trusts, CICs. The list goes on. During an average day, an FD could be negotiating the acquisition of a £360m shopping centre; managing the outsourcing of back office services; and then helping a DCS to identify savings within their services. An FD is required to change their ‘hat’ numerous times a day and must be able to shift their approach in order to manage each relationship.

This highlights the importance of strong negotiation skills. The existing levers and hierarchical structures are becoming more blurred as work takes place across geographical and organisational boundaries, and into different sectors. Finance professionals of the future need to be strong negotiators and great deal makers.

Penna is a proud partner of CIPFA and we are working together to bridge the gaps in this change. Over the past 18 months we have worked with a number of authorities to advise on organisational structures and development plans to get from A to B. Through a balance of assessing current skill sets and planning what the future needs to look like, we can support clients to develop some of these skill sets internally and identify where it is best to bring them in externally on a short-term or permanent basis.

If you would like to know more about the work we are doing or share your view on what the future should look like, please get in touch with me at anthony.lewis@penna.com or on 0207 3327763.