You’re only as good as the people you employ. It’s a well-worn cliche but for local authorities facing recruitment challenges across all levels of the finance spectrum, it’s also a source of ongoing stress as the problem of sourcing good people – from finance director down to entry level finance staff – shows no sign of abating. Rachel Willcox reports
Central government has made no secret of its ambition for local government to become increasingly self-reliant, eventually funding itself fully from a combination of business rates and council tax. That shift is already demanding a growing focus on commercialisation as local authorities look to plug diminishing central government funding with new income streams.
But recruiting the new breed of public sector finance team members with the requisite skills to rise to these challenges is proving a hard nut to crack, warns Jes Ladva, partner and head of the local government practice at headhunter Odgers Interim.
Public sector finance faces pressures from both ends. Fewer graduates are pursuing entry-level finance jobs while the budget cuts of the past decade have brought structural challenges. The cuts have led to a delayering of local government structures that makes the leap from one level to the next more difficult, resulting in fewer senior professionals coming up through the ranks, Ladva warns. And the attractiveness of senior roles is waning, not surprisingly perhaps, considering the resulting increased pressure and tighter resources.
Sanjiv Kohli, of Newark and Sherwood Council, admits the typical risk profile of council finance teams errs too far on the side of caution. “That’s understandable because we have a custodian role, but you also need to work with corporate teams to deliver on the objectives of the management team. Unfortunately it’s still very rare to find people in local authorities with that commercial background at my sort of level.”
Today’s focus is less about reporting results from the previous year and working on a budget for the next. “I want my financial team to be commercially-minded accountants who understand how much it costs to deliver frontline services and who can offer advice to the 30 business services within the council,” he says.
Alison Ring, ICAEW’s Director for Public Sector, believes now is a pivotal time for public sector accountancy roles. “Public sector hasn’t historically been on the careers radar for accountants in the same way as private practice or business, partly due to salary expectations but also a misunderstanding about the kind of opportunities that exist. One of my objectives is to make public sector more mainstream.”