Why choose the public sector?

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Despite living in very different parts of the continent and not knowing one another beyond a LinkedIn connection, three ACCA members working as civil servants in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya are united on the crucial importance of finance in transforming public services. A career in public sector finance is, they say, incredibly rewarding.

Fundamentally, a keen sense of ethics and a desire to serve and improve their communities led all three to embark on careers in the public sector.

Righting wrong

‘My father, grandfather and aunties were public servants, so I grew up around public service and patriotism,’ says Andrew Kubo Mlawasi FCCA, a member of the ACCA Global Forum for the Public Sector. He entered public service straight out of university, driven to tackle the injustices he was witnessing.

‘Kenya was in political turmoil,’ he says. ‘There was corruption in the civil service, public servants were there just to make money, service delivery was not entrenched in their DNA. We hold public servants in such high regard, but they were just serving their own interests. I couldn’t understand it.’

A chance to contribute

Haruna Abdullahi FCCA, executive chairman of Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory Internal Revenue Service and ACCA Nigeria’s public sector advocate for 2023, entered public service to contribute to his country.

He says: ‘I spent the first part of my career in the oil and gas industry here in Nigeria but also in Malaysia. So I’d been around the world, I’d seen how systems work in other countries, I’d seen functional public services, staffed by civil servants who took pride in their work.

‘At the time in Nigeria, however, the best people generally wanted to work in the private sector, in multinationals, not in a ministry. So the sector wasn’t getting quality talent, nor people with an ambition to serve society.’

Today, he’s more optimistic. ‘A younger generation of well-educated professionals is coming through, opening the sector up and giving it more confidence. This generation is trying to make a difference; they’re more socially minded. Previously you saw more of a focus on money, but these days people want to change things, they want a better society. It’s really a great shift.’

Real change

Mlawasi got the opportunity to make real change happen early on in his career when he had the job of setting up a local government finance function from scratch. ‘I set up a budget team, introduced automation through an integrated financial management information system, and pioneered programme-based budgeting,’ he says.

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‘I then spent four years as the local government finance minister. I took own-source revenue from US$1.9m to US$4.2m, and improved how we spent this by introducing e-procurement. It was an awesome experience.’

Indeed, it is a great example of the kind of constructive, measurable and impactful contributions finance professionals can make in the public sector, which is not always a widespread perception.

Manenzhe Manenzhe FCCA, a former City of Johannesburg CFO and ACCA Africa Public Sector CFO of the Year winner 2022, says: ‘We are not accountants because we can count, we are accountants because we are called to be accountable.’

For finance professionals to make a real contribution to public life, they need to understand that finance is no longer just a support function but a strategic one, he continues. ‘It’s one thing for politicians to promise something, but to make it happen requires accountants and CFOs, to make sure a budget follows a strategy, that a promise is met. Accountants will evaluate the economic environment, the external forces likely to change a landscape. It’s an integrated approach that needs finance professionals front and centre to succeed.’

Biggest splash

For up-and-coming finance professionals and would-be CFOs, the biggest impact you can make is in local government. It’s the closest you can get to seeing how your decisions impact citizens, and it is rich experience should you want to aim for higher levels of government.

Manenzhe says: ‘This space needs quality finance professionals because it’s where the wheels turn very fast. At a national and provincial level, the focus is more on policy formulation and implementation, while at the local level you see people’s lives changing due to your procurement decisions. Local government needs young people to say they’re not happy with the speed of how things are done, not to sit in the corner and complain, but be a part of the change in their lifetimes.’

Giving back

Our interviewees all share a desire to mentor, educate and inspire. ‘Sometimes young people learn too closely from the text and not from someone who’s walked the path,’ Manenzhe says.

Mlawasi agrees. ‘The traditional professor is a theorist; they read the books and disseminate the theory. But I’ve put the theory into practice. I’ve seen it work, I’ve seen it fail. I can provide a holistic view,’ he says.

To that end he offers the following tips for success in public sector finance:

  • Embrace system change and technology adoption. ‘After implementing a payments system, I saw processing times halved, and all revenue clearly visible and accountable online.’
  • Keep an open mind. ‘You must be aware of changing legislation and policies, tax structures and technology, and open to learning. An open mind is especially valuable if you are coming from the private sector. The public sector has bureaucracy and red tape, interference from stakeholders and other civil servants. You have to be open-minded – and learn to play politics.’

Author: Neil Johnson, journalist

More information

Find the ACCA toolkit for finance professionals moving from private to public sector plus further resources on ACCA’s public sector hub

This article was first published in AB magazine January 2024

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