Industry Insights - Local Government Finance
Pat Main, Interim Head of Finance at Reigate & Banstead Borough Council, is an experienced Chief Financial Officer (CFO) who has spent almost all of her career working in the public sector, supporting large scale corporate and strategic objectives.
Working in the public sector finance has never been a more challenging proposition. After years of austerity and cuts, local councils have found themselves in the frontline tackling the issues thrown up by Covid-19. Juggling the limited funds can be a thankless task, but Pat has no regrets about her career choice.
“My motivation is the same as when I joined the public sector in the first place,” says Pat. “It’s working with colleagues across a range of services that share a common purpose of wanting to do our best to meet the needs of the local community.”
Her sense of civic duty is unwavering, but there can be no doubt that the demands of the role have intensified: “The pace of change and level of demand has definitely increased over recent years – local communities rightly expect more from their council and there is increasing demand for support from clients with complex needs.
“Councils have to budget to meet those needs but at the same time the sources of funds are reducing or are beyond local control. Local government operates in a highly regulated environment which means that some options are not available, such as just increasing council tax or business rates to make up a funding shortfall.
“This places significant demands on Finance staff, both to be fully aware of the regulations to ensure compliance, and to help develop sustainable funding solutions, despite the constraints.
“From a professional perspective, I enjoy the intellectual challenge of the new demands and initiatives that have to be funded and working with colleagues to finding solutions to them.”
For all the challenges, Pat has no hesitation in recommending a finance career in the public sector.
She says, “If you enjoy variety in your work, then I would recommend working in the public sector - as long as you are not averse to rolling your sleeves up and supporting others in solving new challenges. I enjoy using my communication skills to explain complex financial information to non-financial colleagues to help them make informed decisions.”
Pat Main - Q&A
What made you wish to seek a career in council finance?
After leaving university, I worked for a private sector accountancy firm as a trainee accountant but my ambition was always to move over the public sector having worked for the NHS during summer vacations while I was a student. I particularly valued the sense of common purpose from working for an organisation where everyone is focussed on the needs of the end user, the patient, regardless of role.
After a couple of years in public practice I made my move to the NHS where I completed my CIPFA qualification. At the time the NHS’s training scheme provided fantastic experience of all aspects of the finance function, not just accountancy but also audit, payroll, AP, AR, etc. This provided a solid foundation for my later career.
Working in the NHS also gave me the opportunity to apply, after a few years, for roles in the wider public sector. At the time there was a lot of demand for CIPFA accountants in local government so I eventually moved over to work for the local council where I took on my first team management role.
In many ways the work was very similar to the NHS but there were differences, not least understanding the role of elected councillors in decision-making.
What should you consider when applying for a position in local government?
You definitely need the ability to cope with a diverse workload that calls on a variety of skills. Local authorities deliver a wide range of services and are accountable to multiple stakeholders. Their finance professionals work closely with non-finance staff and need to be able to present information to them in a range of formats and levels of detail.
They also need to look beyond the figures to understand how individual council services operate and what they are aiming to achieve.
Local government is subject to continuous change; councils are constantly working to improve the services provided to meet the needs of local communities while at the same time having to respond to new Government policies and priorities, often at short notice.
Excellent financial information is at the heart of decision-making and delivery so the Finance team plays a key role in supporting these processes.
What have been some of the make or break moments within your career?
A step change came when I made the decision to aspire to a ‘Head of Finance’ role and take on the additional responsibilities that brings, including eventually taking on the statutory ‘Section 151 Officer’ responsibilities.
This meant taking the lead role in advising the authority’s political leaders which calls on a wider skill set than purely technical knowledge; it’s rarely something you can learn from a textbook or on a course. The key is having strong communication skills and making time to understand the priorities and ambitions of the elected councillors and working with them to find sustainable solutions.
Are there any misconceptions attached to working in the sector?
The days of local government being perceived as a backwater where nothing much happens are long gone (if they ever existed).
What is the biggest lesson you've learnt within your career?
Take an interest on what your manager’s role is (and their manager) and make time to develop the skills and experience that will prepare you for progression.
What piece of advice would you give to anyone looking to start a career within local government finance?
Don’t let lack of specific experience in local government put you off applying; but do carry out some research if invited to interview.
Read the council’s website to find out what its plans and priorities are and have a look at the published annual accounts and budget reports to gain an overview of its financial position.
Another great source of information about public sector finance is www.cipfa.org.
If the advert provides an opportunity to contact a member of the team to discuss the role do give them a call to find out more about the work involved and the skills they are looking for.
Comment - Sophia Georgant
Finance Technician at Reigate & Banstead Borough
"I enjoy working for the Council because in my opinion it is more complex than most roles, so there is a lot more for me to learn and experience at the start of my career in Finance.
"I also feel as if I am benefiting the public in some kind of way as we ensure we are spending money in the correct way in order to benefit our communities. I never thought about working in Finance for the Public Sector before, but now I can see myself staying here."
Callum McKenna is an Associate Director in the Accountancy Division at Harvey John.
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