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Don’t leave finance professionals short-changed

Written by: Andrew Tromans is a Senior Consultant at Penna and Mizan Rouf is Associate Director at CIPFA-Penna
Published on: 14 Mar 2024

2023 was not surprisingly a particularly busy year in finance recruitment, for us here at CIPFA Penna and across the executive, middle management, and technical markets.

We expect 2024 to be equally as busy: the local government finance function will continue to develop and evolve, with clients not only expecting candidates to possess outstanding finance and technical skills, but also seeking candidates who have an increasingly sophisticated skillset so they can manage broader resourcing portfolios, make the most of emerging technology, work corporately with a range of partners, and lead change and transformation.

With demand for council services increasing, and budgets heading in the opposite direction, the requirement for good finance professionals, both interim and permanent will similarly increase. The demand for experienced finance leaders is under immense pressure and the talent pipeline is lagging. Furthermore, this widening skills and knowledge gap will only be amplified by the ageing profile of the profession and the number of professionals retiring (or imminently planning to retire).

The CIPFA Penna talent development board, whose membership comprises leading public sector finance experts, have been actively discussing these challenges that are facing the profession and the public sector.

We’re clear that as a first step the perception of accountancy and public finance needs a major overhaul to attract early-career talent, to tempt experienced talent to return to the sector, and to encourage sector transition for professionals with transferable expertise.

Whereas the common (mis)conception of finance is it is all about the numbers, in reality finance professionals are conducting some of the most complex and mission-critical work, which makes a real impact on both communities and society. Moreover, there an opportunity for public finance professionals not only to make a difference, but also to gain a greater breadth of experience, and greater responsibility, earlier in their careers than in other sectors.

Our board members talk about career achievements such as changing lives, delivering major infrastructure, building homes, tackling climate change, improving inequalities – missions and purpose that should attract the Gen Z community as well as nudge private sector professionals to take a good look too. If correctly promoted, the attraction of work that is intrinsically meaningful and fulfilling should be sufficient to attract the next cohort of finance professionals into the sector.

As a second step, the perception of the sector needs a refresh. Too often the only media mentions of local government concern crisis and catastrophe: cuts, mismanagement, corruption etc. The sector needs to demonstrate and evidence the valuable role it plays in people’s lives, highlighting the successes, and celebrating the achievements. There is an important role for individual organisations to play in promoting themselves as employers of choice – with modern approaches to recruitment and inclusive and supportive corporate cultures.

There’s also a vital part for the local government ecosystem to perform to help ensure the sector can attract and retain the talent it needs – local authorities need to be seen as being viable, adding value an in control of their own destiny, not just navigating from one crisis to the next.

Beyond improving the brand, we are seeing improvements in the diversity of finance candidate pools. Through identifying talent with transferable skills from contiguous sectors, and wrapping development and transition support around them, we have welcomed new candidates. And by working with clients to tap into candidates’ future potential with CIPFA professional support programmes successful appointments have been made.

With increasing numbers of local authorities facing the reality that they will need to issue a section 114 notice, the demand for experienced interim professionals who can provide immediate expertise has not surprisingly increased. But there’s also a newly-raised antennae for due diligence on candidates from a ‘troubled’ organisation, or with ‘history’ – real or perceived. This, if not more measured will further limit the pool of people available to offer their services.

Local government finances are going through some of the most challenging periods for decades, therefore the need to have experienced professionals will be key in navigating through troubled times. The authorities that build resources effectively and plan for contingencies will be best-placed to move forward.

We have seen a continued appetite for streamlining and enhancing efficiency, adopting new operating models, implementation of major systems and major restructures to finance departments, including multiple authorities moving to a finance business partner model. All of this has put further pressure on talent demand, so Penna will be working with the CIPFA Penna talent development board to promote a more positive and realistic view of the work of the public sector finance, attracting those in early careers to enter the profession; and drive the mission and purpose of public sector to encourage those in the private sector to take a closer look.

It goes without saying that all organisations should also be thinking hard about their retention and development strategies for their finance professionals. With high workloads and increased scrutiny, we need to ensure they are seeing the recognition and value for their work – in terms of personal and professional development and career progression.

Andrew Tromans is a Senior Consultant at Penna and Mizan Rouf is Associate Director at CIPFA-Penna