OK, there's red tape, but the job's never dull

Public-sector finance: Paul Gosling meets two accountants who gave up their private lives

Many of the job vacancies for accountants are in the public services, responding to the need for more dynamic financial managers in a newly commercialised world. Yet some private-sector accountants are reluctant to make the leap for fear that they will be resented, and find the differences too great. Such worries are needless according to those who have already made the journey.

Nick Wright is finance and administrative director of the Construction Industry Training Board, having been recruited by NB Selection from the private sector. "I was working for an insurance company that was very entrepreneurial, that had become very big - the insurer I was working for having been taken over by a very large organisation, which put me out of a job.

"I had previously spent three years at Girobank when it was in the public sector, but had looked for more rapidity and flexibility in decision-making.

"I had never heard of the CITB before the job materialised, and I found it a very different environment. I joined at a period of intense change. People with private-sector experience are now rather prized and valued. This has enabled me to move in various ways which someone from a public- sector background would not have been able to do. It is rewarding that there is this open welcome for the skills brought in, and a recognition that they are not already there."

While Mr Wright feels very positive about his experience, which has helped to transform the management of the CITB, he does feel frustrated at what can sometimes be a cumbersome decision-making process. "There is a degree of slowness and bureaucracy at the highest level, with accountability to an outside board, people from the private sector of the construction industry, and there is a lot of bureaucracy and writing of papers and formalising things through committees.

"When there was frustration, I took it up with the chairman, and he sorted it out, though there was still an element in the office of `Has it been to committee?'.

Mr Wright believes that his influence on the organisation has been well received, and has helped the CITB to operate more effectively.

Molly Bickerstaff is the director of purchasing and quality control at the Audit Commission, having previously worked as an auditor for Coopers and Lybrand. She found that on arrival she was distrusted by the people she was regulating, the district auditors - some of whom are employed by private firms, but most of whom work in the public-sector body, District Audit. She also found herself ensuring that auditors in the public sector were not permitted to do the things that she, as a private-sector auditor, had found completely natural.

"We forbid any of our auditors from doing internal audits. I used to do that, and I would have said, `Why not?'. We also ban auditors doing non-audit work, which is a euphemism for consultancy, which might cause a conflict of interest, or perhaps just be seen as a conflict of interest." These things matter a lot more in the public sector, she says.

"District Audit is our majority supplier. To a person they were horrified that I was coming in to do this job of quality control over them. It was a very imaginative decision to employ me from the private sector. District Audit has this culture of being feared and of always being right. They have got more human now."

Ms Bickerstaff recognises that coming in from a different culture can heighten existing conflicts. "Whoever does quality control is going to be hated, but it's not personal," she says. Only about 5 per cent of Audit Commission staff have worked in commerce, she estimates, and, consequently, she is often consulted to give "a private-sector view" of problems. But she adds, "I was impressed by the quality of people at the Commission."

Some assumptions of public-sector life turned out to be false, while others were accurate. "It's just as hard work, though it is true that more people go home by 5 o'clock," says Ms Bickerstaff. "It's a shifting population, with people on secondments, which is very healthy. I expected people to stick in their niches, like Sir Humphrey.

"People left behind in the private sector continue to have funny views. There is a big divide in perceptions. They expect the public sector to be very boring, and that is just not true."

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