The future of public sector skills

content ice skaters public sector skills

It’s difficult to overstate the impact the Covid-19 pandemic is having on the world. Very few areas of life have been left untouched or unaffected, testing the resolve, resilience and adaptability of individuals, businesses and governments alike.

But as is often said, within crisis often lies opportunity, which in this case is a real chance for societies to ‘build back better’. With pre-existing trends being forced into rapid acceleration — digitisation, new ways of working, sustainability, wellbeing, ecommerce, industry 4.0, digitised supply chains, glocalisation challenging globalisation — long-standing playbooks and ‘ways of doing things' are being ripped apart.

This is causing deep reflection in the workforce and evaluation at an organisational level. People are considering what really matters to them in life as well as in their careers, and are placing more value on what they do, how they do it and the impact they and the companies they work for leave on the world.

Organisations large and small, private and public, need to take this into consideration when planning for their own ‘new’ future. Getting capability right, harnessing and developing relevant skills, and retaining and attracting talent have perhaps never been more critical.

Yet the public sector’s challenges are perhaps unique and flavoured by key factors besides Covid-19. 

‘Governments not only have to recover from Covid-19 while dealing with substantial fiscal challenges, but they have to make sure the recovery is green and sustainable, and on course for the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),’ said consultant and public financial management expert at the United Nations Development Programme Rania Uwaydah Mardini.

‘In a nutshell, it's safe to say public sector finance (PSF) has become extremely complex.’

Rapid evolution

As accountants and auditors are the cornerstone to PSF, expectations of the accountancy profession have grown, Mardini said at ACCA’s recently held 2021 Virtual Public Sector Conference (VPSC), translating into increased demand for high quality standards, which are evolving and multiplying rapidly at a time when accounting in the public sector is limited.

Therefore, she argued, professional accountants need to be properly trained to support sound public finance management (PFM) in such a dynamic and complex environment. This extends to relevant internal and external reporting, reliable budgeting, budgeting in crisis, budget execution controls, for example, to mitigate corruption risk, and effective internal and external audit functions. 

It’s not only the public sector finance environment that is evolving at pace, but the roles and professions themselves. 

Marty Muldoon, CEO of Financial Management Institute of Canada, notes a shift from a world in which the accountant in the room was viewed as responsible and accountable for controls and oversight, to one today whereby much of this responsibility has moved to management. 

‘This brings the need for a shifting in our skills,’ he said at the VPSC, highlighting two key areas: 1) strategic value added business partnering and 2) leveraging technology to support value addition.

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Strategic partnering

‘As accountants, we were always technically sound, but we need to augment this by consciously and richly understanding and developing our business acumen,’ he said. 

The partnering sweet spot, according to Muldoon, is being viewed by a departmental boss or process owner as an indispensable team member.

‘To get there you need to do what it takes to master the business, to know it inside and out, as though you were inside the programme, owning it, knowing its strategies, drivers, risks, interdependencies etc. Understanding the business as though it were your own is really key,’ he said.

Business partnering is a highly collaborative role, and not without unique nuances for accountants, who need to maintain independence for the sake of accountability, while also threading the needle of being an excellent team player for a department or programme you're not effectively a member of. 

‘Letting the business know where you stand and where you have a line you can't cross, these kinds of things become the softer and more subtext skills we also need to build,’ said Muldoon.

All these skills combined are what, in Muldoon’s view, will set apart future public service leaders, the directors, CFOs, chief audit executives etc. ‘They’ll become so valuable in helping programmes succeed, knowing what programme leaders need, knowing intimately how the business cycles work, what indicators signal that risks are materialising, a really goofy simple one: knowing whether a surplus is really a surplus — these are all underpinnings to future decision-making.

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‘It's really then that I think you develop enough corporate insight to be confident enough in developing sound recommendations with business value, recommendations that are truly implementable within the business, that the programme may not have even been able to see for the themselves.’

Getting techy with it

A vital aspect of being a modern and valued business partner is technological insight, not to the extent of being a programmer, but most important is the knowhow to enable technology, to choose and implement the right solution.

‘I remember when automation was coming out and there was a lot of unrest, there was a fear that it was synonymous with job loss. But if you get to be a strategic value added business partner and the skill of tech enablement, then you have the perfect symbiotic relationship,’ said Muldoon.

‘You're able to bring much higher value added work with in-depth analytics, taking data from information to intelligence. Every public sector organisation has reams of data, but very few have reams of high value business intelligence. That for me is why these two skillsets are so prevalent in the future of our work.’

The superpower skill, Muldoon continued, is to be constantly learning about what's out there so you can bring the solutions that provide value, which is made easier by knowing a business really well. 

‘Then ask questions like can AI help in a situation? Is there good data integration between programme, financial and HR data? What analytics is required? What can we do to automate and alleviate redundancy? Dive in — streamline and improve data, improve decision-making information, reduce programme and financial management effort, think of the SDGs, understand stakeholder requirements and bring them to the fore when info reporting — it all adds value.’

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At the coal face

Similarly to ACCA and its Career Navigator, the UK government’s finance function in early 2021 launched The Finance Career Framework (FCF), which provides a clear and consistent definition of core finance roles across government.

‘It's quite a significant step forward in shaping our identity as a government finance function (GFF), getting common standards that define job roles, support career development across the function and bring consistency,’ said Suzanne Ibbotson, Head of Finance Capability, L&D, GFF at HM Treasury, another key speaker at ACCA’s recent VPSC.

The diversity of roles is huge in government finance, over 100 organisations across UK government requiring finance staff. 

‘Our people and their diverse skills, experience and background are at the heart of everything we do as a function. We want finance to be at the heart of decision-making, working with other professions in a multidisciplinary approach. We want GFF to be a great place to work where staff at all levels feel valued for what they're doing and their contribution for delivering excellent public services,’ said Ibbotson.

Access recording of ACCA’s 2021 Virtual Public Sector Conference to hear from a stellar lineup of top global experts in public finance, including discussions on sustainability, international standards, public sector skills, and the evolution of public financial management. Now available here on demand.

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