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What the ACA brings to the public sector: in the words of Civil Service Fast Streamers

Steve Thomas, with colleagues Sophie Denton, Matthew Ruddock and Alex Fullerton, share the benefits of studying the ACA whilst working in the public sector after they successfully qualified as ACAs in July 2019.

Studying for the ACA whilst working in the public sector is a challenging but ultimately rewarding experience. My colleagues and I joined the civil service in 2016 as part of the Fast Stream leadership development programme: an accelerated scheme developing people from diverse backgrounds into leadership roles across various government functions, such as finance, commercial, project delivery, HR and others. 

Finance Fast Streamers complete four postings within different Government departments, and a secondment outside the civil service – alongside the tough ask of training to become a qualified accountant at the same time! In addition to an ICAEW Counsellor, Fast Streamers have a dedicated development manager, coaching and leadership development workshops to support their leadership journey.

One of the advantages of the Finance Fast Stream is the opportunity to choose the institute with which to qualify. We all reasoned that the ACA was the best route for us due to the technical nature of the qualification, along with the transferable and wider business skills it develops that are key to success in the civil service. Another key factor was the prestige and esteem in which the ACA qualification is held. 

Throughout our postings, the programme of studies and professional development has helped to complement the new skills and knowledge learned on the job. The ACA is a differentiator and marks you out as somebody with the credibility to answer complex technical questions. I now not only have the knowledge of IFRS and how to apply and interpret complex accounting treatments, but I can disseminate this knowledge to colleagues who have not studied the subject in detail.

This arose for me in preparing the annual accounts for one of the Devolved Administrations in the first year of adoption of IFRS15, and many transactions needed to be analysed by colleagues that had never had to apply their accountancy knowledge in such a way. I ensured there was a process in place to enable each area of the business to report their transactions accurately and transparently. I had both the technical knowledge to complete the task alongside softer skills to share information across teams.

Matthew Ruddock found the technical aspect useful when dealing with external businesses and charities: 'As these sectors have taken on significant government contracts, it has been necessary for government departments to analyse the financial data of these organisations in procurement processes or wider provider management. The ACA provides the knowledge and skills to be able to analyse financial statements effectively, and ultimately make strategic decisions with confidence and expertise.' 

Sophie Denton communicated technical accounting treatment to policy professionals at HM Treasury: 'My team was predominantly policy analysts working on costing projects to analyse areas of cross-government spend. The ACA prepared me well to be able to understand and explain technical topics that arose, such as finance programmes at British Business Bank, in an understandable way to reflect in project analysis and future recommendations.'

Alex Fullerton was working for the MoD reviewing and advising on investment projects: 'Somewhere I never imagined an ACA qualification would take me is procuring cannons for tanks! I led a deep dive into an investment programme at the Ministry of Defence to upgrade a class of tanks. Partnering with my Army Officer colleagues, it was fascinating to hear their perspective and see a glimpse of army life. With the knowledge and leadership skills I developed whilst training for the ACA, I offered advice on how to deliver the programme on time and on budget – it was great to hear this being well received in an area where few accountants dare to tread.  Sitting in the tank’s driving seat (with the engine turned off!) I really felt the positive impact that the civil service can deliver to society.'

The challenges of completing such a demanding qualification as well as working in high-profile public sector roles have served to develop us as professionals and leaders. The ACA requires a large amount of commitment and sacrifice to get through the studies, maintain strong performance in work and ensure you don’t alienate friends and family (though of course an ACA qualification makes you more interesting at parties!). It is essential to be methodical and organised, and you learn to prioritise what is important to you. This is where meetings with your ICAEW counsellor are a real benefit. They are the perfect opportunity to reflect on your time in the preceding six months and focus your priorities for the next six months and beyond.

Completing the ACA whilst in the public sector has been the ideal way to enhance our development toward senior leadership. The hard and soft skills we have developed have enabled us to thrive in work, and to achieve far more than would have been possible without having the ACA. 

Looking back on the last 3 years, I have to say that I couldn’t be happier to have chosen to become an ICAEW accountant!

Are you an ICAEW member working in central government and interested in contributing to the development of new finance professionals by becoming a student counsellor? As a Fast Stream counsellor you support up to three students, ensuring that they understand the ACA requirements and meet them every six months to review progress and agree objectives for the next meeting. If you are interested in supporting your profession in this way please email Rachel Below, Finance Fast Stream QPRT.

For more information about the Fast Stream, please visit the website