Launch pads for high flyers

Public-sector finance: Paul Gosling finds out whether it's better to go private if you want to get ahead
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The Independent Online
"The public sector is perceived as promoting only into dead men's shoes, and of being bureaucratic, while the private sector is equated with a big expense account every month. That is not a true picture," says Adrian Slater, public-sector director of Hays Accountancy Personnel.

Not only are the public services looking to recruit people with private- sector experience, but they are increasingly offering pay and conditions that compete effectively with business. This is particularly true in those parts of the public sector that have been in the forefront of reform.

"Health and education offer more responsibility and more advancement than in the private sector, especially post-qualification accountants in their late twenties to mid-thirties," explains Mr Slater. "The hospital accountant now has the whole control of a budget in a department, and has to take decisions on their own about staff. They have a broader involvement in the non-financial management as well."

The young high flyer often has more opportunity for early promotion working in public bodies, which operate a meritocracy, paying for the job, while business is more likely to pay for the person's experience, Mr Slater believes. With an increase in the use of performance-related pay, then public bodies' "finance packages are equal to most in the private sector", he says.

"Health trusts are often looking for the one missing skill, to help them to present themselves in a different way, or to get private finance, and get commercial ideas in," says Mr Slater. He adds that many trusts have now formed audit consortia to take over the internal audit functions of hospitals, as well as now competing for work from executive agencies and local authorities. The consortia are often looking for private-sector experience.

Transferability in skills can work both ways. "Accountants in the public sector are now in demand from the big practices to help them to compete for contracted-out work, for example, against District Audit," says Katy Nicholson, spokeswoman for Reed Accountancy. "There is more movement between the sectors than even a couple of years ago."

District Audit, which conducts most external audits for health trusts and local authorities, now has 22 per cent of its staff holding private- sector accountancy qualifications. A spokesman says: "We do appreciate that the private sector can significantly add to the variety, depth and breadth of our audit skills mix, but we don't have any official policy of getting privatesector people in. There are a lot of very good people available from the private sector at the moment."

NB Selection recently conducted a survey of perceptions among accountants seeking work and found that candidates expect to find more prejudice against people with private-sector experience from the public sector than the other way around. In truth, each sector is looking in the right circumstances for someone with knowledge of the other world.

"It is a matter of sorting a candidate's perceptions from reality," says Margaret Walker, consultant in NBS's public-sector practice. "But people's perceptions can be powerful. Interchange between the sectors is a good and positive thing."

Adrian Slater says that the one continuing blockage is with local authorities, which are still not offering pay and conditions packages that compete properly with the private sector. This view is disputed by the Local Government Management Board, the local authorities' employers body.

David Mellor, principal research officer at LGMB, says: "As far as we are concerned there is a pretty flexible pay structure, with no external constraint. We have done a survey in skills shortages, and accountancy did not emerge at all as a problem." Mr Mellor adds, though, that there is considerable variation between authorities, and in different parts of the country, on what finance staff are paid.

Hays is finding that with the future shape of local government now almost resolved, the moratoria that many councils imposed has now been lifted, enabling them to recruit more accountants. While the new unitary authorities are generally committed to filling positions from among the staff employed by the councils to be abolished, many continuing authorities are now taking on new staff.

The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants' qualification is becoming one of the most respected by public bodies. Health trusts, often seeking to attract private finance, are particularly keen about it, says Mr Slater. "CIMA is popular because costing regimes are so vital for new trusts. The same applies in government departments and agencies. It is not necessarily more desirable as a qualification, but it is attractive because it has been obtained in the private sector."

CIMA recently did a survey of its members' working experiences; it found the reality of work between the sectors is surprisingly similar. Lesley Phillips, spokeswoman, says: "In terms of management accountancy there's not much difference in the things people talk about."

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