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Finance business partnering: in government

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 09 Sep 2021

The UK Government’s concept of the ‘finance business partner’ is best explained by someone who does the job. We find out what this concept means in practice.

Delivering value to the taxpayer through better financial management is the mantra of government. One of the ways this is being addressed is through the introduction of finance business partners (FBPs). The ‘Excellence in Finance Business Partnering’ framework has been developed to help guide government departments in implementing them. 

Different government departments have moved forward at different speeds, but fundamental to the aims of the model is providing sound financial advice to support organisational decision-making with the FBP being the link from the business into finance. That being said, it is the business environment and operating context in which the FBP finds themselves that determines the real scope of the FBP’s work. 

ICAEW member Rob Dodds, currently a finance business partner at the MoD, is part of a small group of cross-government senior FBPs who have helped set up the start of a network across government to look at how the role can be enhanced. He says an FBP’s role is to be a bridge between the numbers and technical expertise on the one hand, and organisational delivery in terms of supporting budget-holders and those delivering public services on the other.

“A successful FBP must be a business expert,” says Dodds. “If I need to be able to provide advice to the business, I must understand what that business area does. What are its operational drivers? What are its political drivers? What are the opportunities? Where can I add value to their decision-making?”

He explains that, in his role, he will typically be asked for the latest forecast against budget, what the actual spend has been to date, where are the financial risks and opportunities. He will also be required to make sure other technical accounting and financial policy/process expertise is provided, including input to investment proposals. “That is where I would use the backing of finance and corporate colleagues across the organisation to help do that,” he points out.

“We are an influential voice,” he says. “What we do is manage public money by helping stakeholders understand their finances and available resources and be that influential voice at the heart of decision-making alongside the senior budget-holders.” However, the success of the FBP also depends on there being a strong back-office behind the scenes that is as effective and efficient as possible. That is where most departments have been embracing back-office systems improvement programmes to help turn the discussion to what the numbers mean, rather than spending excessive amounts of time on producing them.

“A management accountant or similar person in the back office should be able to provide us a suite of reports on the budget that we can then use to discuss with senior teams, and we as FBPs can focus on the value-added – the strategic decision-making to support the organisation,” he says. “That is the role we strive to step into.”

Importantly, FBPs need to have a range of skills. Being qualified helps bring credibility and financial expertise to the role. Dodds points out that professionalisation of the finance function is the likely direction of travel in government and is the context in which FBPs are encouraged to think about their development. FBPs also need to make sure they develop other key skills around communication, influencing, and how to be impactful in their roles.

What difference are FBPs making to the MoD? Dodds says FBPs at the MoD worked hard in the lead up to its spending review settlement last year and now continue to apply themselves to implement it and maximise available budgets and resources across the organisation. That translates into ensuring investment proposals are properly scrutinised and challenged where needed, and into supporting wider department strategic prioritisation exercises. “Ensuring there’s a credible set of numbers (costs, benefits etc) behind proposals and plans is fundamental here,” he comments. 

FBPs play a key role in any department’s business planning cycle. The MoD plans over 10 years which enables more long-term planning – although departments generally will still operate within the parameters of the relevant Spending Review period in question. A four-year settlement was agreed last year for the MoD which provides an element of certainty, whereas for other government departments, the Spending Review will be later this year. 

COVID too has brought its complications. Dodds says that a hugely important part of his role is around meeting people, building relationships and stakeholder management. Building relationships is obviously harder remotely, especially when you are new in role and in an organisation that is large and complex like MoD.

Nevertheless, over the last 10 years or so FBPs have been put in place across most UK Government departments. “We are hopeful that by creating a network with representation from all the main departments it will enable us to continue to evolve and enhance the FBP model, and importantly learn from each other,” says Dodds. “We want to make sure when we broaden out the network we foster a sense of community, learning and sharing of good practice.”

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