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The accountant serving the public interest in Cyprus

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 15 Feb 2024

ICAEW member Andreas Antoniades, Accountant General of the Republic of Cyprus, on how simplification and use of technology underpins his vision for the country’s refreshing approach to public financial management.

The public sector hasn’t always been synonymous with innovation, but for ICAEW member Andreas Antoniades, streamlining public sector financial management and using technology for the benefit of stakeholders – from senior civil servants to citizens – is top of his to-do list. “Learning from the past is always useful, but it’s important to look forward,” he says. 

His vision for the future is one where accountants act as financial and business advisers, offering informed insight across areas including sustainability reporting, social inclusion and broader development issues. 

Antoniades has honed his views over the course of a varied career across both the public and the private sector. After graduating in economics from Manchester University, Antoniades joined PwC in Cyprus as an audit trainee at a time when the country was grappling with the challenges thrown up by accession to the EU. 

A six-year stint at the European Court of Auditors in Luxembourg gave him exposure to different cultures, and an opportunity to exchange knowledge and identify best practices. But it was the scale of opportunities presented by a public sector role, and the challenges of an organisation made up of 150 quite disparate government departments, that prompted a move to the Treasury at the Republic of Cyprus, initially as an accountant before moving up the ranks to his current role. “I wanted my career to be a bigger variety of work,” he explains. 

These experiences have collectively cemented the importance of simplicity as a cornerstone of his approach to public financial management: “I believe it’s first about simplifying the procedures and then digitalising to make life easier for both public servants and citizens. If you digitalise, it's simpler to be compliant. ‘Substance over form’ is a principle that accountants are familiar with. My vision is that we use technology to automate routine transactions, leaving us to focus on areas where we need to exercise professional judgement.”

At a time when European economies face an unprecedented strain on their public finances, it’s an approach that certainly strikes a chord. “It’s costly and time-consuming if you have a growing administrative burden that takes longer and needs increasing resources to deliver services to citizens. Simplification reduces errors, weaknesses and irregularities. And, by simplifying the work, you can concentrate on the real problems to serve the public interest.” 

As organisations continue to fight for the best people, the approach also serves as a talent win-win, he believes. “Repetitive work is cumbersome and frustrating for professionals. It means you invest in ‘low-cost’ labour rather than skillful people who add value to your organisation, so you are not attractive to the best resources in the market.” Ultimately, these factors also conspire against better service delivery and outcomes for taxpayers, Antoniades warns. 

Instead, the strategy at the Treasury is for managers to have access to relevant information related to the issues they want to resolve. “Every decision has a financial aspect so we have positioned professional accountants in every ministry. At the same time, our staff combine the information they gather with business objectives to deliver constructive advice at the highest level. It means we consider financial aspects together with other dimensions – for example the effects on the environment, social inclusion, climate change – to take rational decisions.” 

Meanwhile, around 95% of Treasury receipts or payments are now electronic transactions, and an electronic procurement system has streamlined the tendering process. Public loans and guarantees are also in electronic format. A project using artificial intelligence to help departments prepare documents for tender competitions in public procurement is due to be implemented in the first quarter of 2024. 

“The Treasury’s biggest challenge is to have the necessary data to provide information about all government assets and liabilities – including pension schemes, infrastructure and tax revenues – on a monthly basis to management, but also to different stakeholders, including citizens, to give a view at any point in time of the performance of government. This reporting data should be delivered in a way that includes charts, diagrams and plain language so it can be understood by anyone.” 

Success is measured according to SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timely – objectives. “In every project, you have to set out your objectives at the start; project boards assess performance based on these criteria.” Transparency is key, Antoniades says: “You monitor and report progress not only internally, but also externally to your stakeholders. You also need to be flexible enough to take any corrective action that is needed to deliver the objectives.”

Metrics must include result-orientated objectives, but also factor in the impact on the organisation and society using long-term performance indicators. A project ends when the benefit to society can be measured and reported. It’s tricky, but it’s better to put a number on something by using a methodology and being transparent about it. It’s better to deliver a KPI rather than not entering a measure and progressing in blank. You also need to describe what you have achieved in plain language. 

Similarly, digital reform is an ongoing commitment rather than a one-off project, he says: “Progress, technological development and the way people do things move so fast. We cannot ever sit back and say that the job is done.” 

However, the culture shift required to embrace simplification and digitisation is not to be underestimated, he warns: I realised when I joined the public sector that people were complaining they didn’t have time for innovation, but they did have time to execute complicated tasks without sitting back and rethinking the process.” 

Finding people with the requisite skills to step up to this new role is a challenge, Antoniades admits: “Soft skills are very important because you have to communicate complex concepts in plain language. I hate it when people use abbreviations and technical jargon. Project management, time management, task management and negotiation skills are also very important because, at the end of the day, you need political skills to convince the top management that they should make certain decisions.” 

Despite the obvious skills challenges, the public sector in Cyprus remains an attractive proposition for job seekers, not least because the pay gap between public and private sector isn’t huge. Meanwhile workplace flexibility, in terms of location, and humane working hours are powerful differentiators. Antoniades says: “I’m a big believer in empathy. You have to understand your people to give them incentives to deliver.”

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