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What opportunities exist in the public sector for accountants?

The recession has highlighted the need for governments around the world to maximise their available resources. Here in the UK, the call to strengthen financial management in the public sector offers opportunities for those who possess the right skills. Now could be the time for potential ACA students and other qualified professionals to look to the public sector for their careers.

The public sector offers its trainee accountants experience that would be hard to find in any other area. Large projects involve multiple partners and big budgets, early responsibility, career advancement, development of transferable skills and the underlying knowledge that there really is the chance to make a difference.

And for government departments, highly-qualified, adaptable, intelligent finance professionals are a vital element. Nick Jackson, head of finance at the Treasury, says: “The challenges and range of roles for finance professionals within central government are unrivalled. We now need individuals with enthusiasm for the values of public service, who want to help ensure that services represent value for money for the taxpayer. This requires versatile, pragmatic and effective communicators able to help bring sound financial management experience to policy and operational decision-making.”

So what is the public sector looking for, how does it find what it needs and what are the real opportunities?

Alison Lally, head of professional development for the finance and commercial community across the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), explains: “Finance needs to be at the heart of the organisation, to enable us to meet the fiscal consolidation challenge.”

A resourcing strategy for the profession across government has been developed, which integrates three main strands. “First, we’re continuing to grow our talent from high potential existing civil servants and through graduate recruitment for the Financial Management Development Scheme,” Lally adds.

Over the last few years the scheme has become established in 10 government departments. They offer graduates the opportunity to study towards a professional accounting qualification; and many departments – including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Ministry of Justice and the DWP – offer the chance to study for the ACA.

Second, there is continuing investment in professionals already working within central government. The potential within the existing community has been recognised, and there is an intention to maximise the benefits that can be gained from this. “A key development is that we’re looking to increase breadth of experience, through career development moves across departments and into and out of other sectors,” Lally says. “For example, a finance professional, who has undertaken an operational delivery function for a period, is better placed to then business partner an operational director effectively.

“Third, we are also continuing to undertake a limited amount of recruitment at the part-qualified and qualified levels. Over recent years, the number of finance professionals in central government has increased by 25% from 2008, to 10,000. Though the volume of external recruitment we’re undertaking has now decreased, we expect to be recruiting up to 120 qualified and part-qualified posts a year on average across government.

“We’re now recruiting collaboratively across government, enabling us to achieve efficiencies and increase our purchasing power. The first round of this recruitment is currently underway, and covers roles at the DWP, the Treasury, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. External recruitment enables us to bring in specific skill-sets and experience that we need, and keeps our community fresh.”

Supplied by Accountancy magazine.