The public sector's pulling power

content public sector talent trains

Accountants are among the world’s most sought after professionals. In fact, accounting and finance ranks seventh on the list of roles that are hardest to fill globally, according to a survey by recruiter ManpowerGroup. Meanwhile, rapid societal and technological change is transforming both the employment landscape and what individuals expect from jobs, threatening to further exacerbate the talent shortage.

While that shortage is a headache for private sector employers looking to recruit skilled finance professionals, the problem can be even more acute in the public sector. In many parts of the world, public sector employers are simply unable to pay salaries that compete with those on offer in the private sector. What, then, can the public sector do to attract and retain the best finance talent?

Unmatched influence

The fundamental strategy for a public sector employer must be to showcase how its finance professionals have a far-reaching social impact that cannot easily be replicated in the private sector. ‘The challenge you get in the public sector is to satisfy the demands of citizens with limited resources, because those demands affect people’s health, lives and careers,’ says Manenzhe Manenzhe FCCA, group CFO for the City of Johannesburg in South Africa. ‘You can see a bridge being built and you know you were part of it. You see a clinic where there was bush, and people are getting medication and primary healthcare, and you know you were part of it.’

Gary Kent FCCA, commissioner of corporate services and CFO at the City of Mississauga in Canada, says his role in shaping his community is an important driver for him. ‘The work of building a city is never done,’ he points out. ‘Ideally, it’s about layers of incremental improvement. How do you deliver affordable housing? How do you deliver transit? You can’t do everything at the same time. Explaining the fiscal choices to the public, in language they can understand, is really rewarding.’

Finance professionals play a crucial role in delivering public services and ensuring that taxpayers’ money is used effectively. They need to have the same analytical and strategic skills as their private sector peers. ‘You must be good with numbers and you must be able to understand the strategic alignments of budgets with the objectives of the institution,’ Manenzhe says.

The right mindset

It is mindset, rather than technical expertise, which is probably the principal differentiator between finance professionals in public service and those who work in the private sector. ‘In the private sector, you have the responsibility of helping the corporation to reach its goals and provide shareholders with the maximum return on their investment,’ explains Patricia Gordon-Pamplin FCCA, a retired chief accountant of a reinsurance company who is now chair of Bermuda’s public accounts committee and shadow minister of health and seniors. ‘In public finance, you have to deal with an entire country’s budget, and you are impacting the lives of many more people. You’re not just looking at shareholders’ returns.’

Another important difference is that public sector accountants often have to accommodate and manage the expectations of a very wide range of stakeholders. This requires an ability to communicate and collaborate effectively. ‘Mississauga has 777,000 people and multiple stakeholders, and they all have our phone number,’ Kent says. ‘Every single resident can – and will – call. You really have to speak in language that people understand and connect with them.’

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Complex challenges

Today public sector bodies around the world are navigating widespread technological disruption alongside a range of other challenges. These include severe budgetary constraints, extreme weather events arising from climate change, and demographic developments such as ageing populations. As a result, public sector finance professionals may have to deal with problems of far greater complexity and magnitude than those in the private sector.

‘An ageing population will have implications for a health service, but it will also impact adult social care and tax revenues,’ says Alex Metcalfe, head of public sector policy at ACCA.

It is for this reason that public sector finance professionals need to be innovative. In fact, 91% of public sector respondents surveyed for ACCA’s Innovation in public finance report, revealed that innovation of some description was occurring in their organisation.

One example of how public sector finance professionals are becoming more innovative is through their use of outcome-based budgeting. ‘This is about allocating money to the areas of government that achieve the best results and measuring these outcomes to make informed decisions in the future,’ Metcalfe explains.

Recruitment and retention

Using the power of impact to attract people to work in the public sector is one thing; retaining them is another. There is always a risk that talented people will leave a public sector role if it doesn’t meet their expectations. ACCA’s report, Generation Next: managing talent in the public sector, highlighted that the public sector is more likely to attract and retain talent if it offers clear career paths, an excellent working environment and the opportunity to learn and develop new skills.

In certain jurisdictions, a further consideration is the security of tenure that a career in public finance can offer. This may compensate for lower pay and make it an appealing proposition for some people. ‘Once a person gets a foot in the door of our civil service, it’s essentially a lifetime commitment and a lifetime benefit until such time as they choose to retire,’ says Gordon-Pamplin. ‘Then they have the pension that they can fall back on once that retirement happens. In the private sector, a company can change direction, or merge, or acquire or be acquired by another company. It can decide to shut down, but a government is never going to shut down.’

Ultimately, the kind of people who are really suited to joining – and building their careers in – the public sector will not be motivated by money alone. They will be motivated by the desire to make a positive difference to their communities. ‘Public service is more of a calling than a job,’ says Manenzhe. ‘That’s what keeps me here. I am touching people’s lives.’

Author: Sally Percy, journalist

This article was first published in Accounting and Business magazine in 2020

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