Accountancy & Management: Taking skills into the public domain: Roger Trapp reports on the benefits of staff secondment

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The Independent Online
SHEILA MASTERS must be a glutton for punishment. The challenges facing the accountancy profession would be enough for most people. But she has opted to take on the National Health Service as well.

Moves between large firms and the Government are becoming increasingly common as the public sector seeks to adopt some of the business world's methods. And Ms Masters knows more about the dual role than most.

Before becoming a KPMG Peat Marwick partner 10 years ago, she was seconded to the Treasury as an accountancy adviser and has since worked as director of finance at the NHS management executive.

Last year, she was one of the first private-sector appointees to the Inland Revenue's management board. Not being a stranger in Whitehall was, she says, largely behind her latest appointment, to the NHS policy board.

Like the Revenue post, it will be done on a non-executive basis. However, she points out that the emphasis is rather different from being an outside director in the City, where the idea is to be a check on the company's management. Instead, she sees herself as helping with issues. 'You're bringing experience of another world to problems,' she said.

Although the job is ostensibly limited to attending a few meetings of up to a day in length, Ms Masters realises that it will take up a lot more time than that, mainly in reading and preparation. So why does she do it? And why does her firm allow her to?

'Part of it is that, if you're a large corporation you're part of the network,' she said, pointing out that the Cabinet Office runs training courses that draw from both the private and public sectors.

But the Government is also an important source of work for the likes of Peat Marwick. 'Knowing Whitehall is an important part of our business,' Ms Masters said. The large firms usually have somebody - generally below partner level - on secondment somewhere in government. Expanding experience in this way is also useful for the development of the staff's skills.

For an accountant, the NHS is a special experience, however. 'It's a very interesting organisation and set of problems,' Ms Masters said. The central objective - providing the best patient care possible - was markedly different from that of most other operations, including nationalised industries, where such issues as efficiency, profits and rate of return were of overriding importance.

It is also distinguished by its size. The NHS employs about a million people and has a financial department that, with 14,000 staff, is larger than KPMG's UK business.

Then there is the political factor. Ms Masters describes seeing how policies are developed and crises are handled as fascinating. 'It's very demanding. I probably worked harder there than ever before,' she said, referring to her time at the finance department.

Part of this may be attributed to the fact that she was there when the health service reforms were being introduced - a development that led to her extending her secondment by six months to three years to help implement them. She is also conscious that she spent so much time dealing with this that she neglected to groom a successor in a department where financial experience was limited. As a result, another seconded employee has taken over the finance director's role.

This specialist knowledge is largely responsible for the attraction of accountants for government departments. 'You can take a clear skill - finance - which is in short supply in Whitehall,' Ms Masters said. It also helps to explain why - although there has been some increase - there has been limited movement from the public to the private sector, she said.

'They come with a general skill - they write well, are good administrators etc - which makes it difficult to structure good work experience. It's a question of finding the right projects.'

However, while she is regarded as something of an expert on tax, she feels this had nothing to do with her appointment to the Revenue board. Although she originally sought to make her career in the field and qualified with the Institute of Taxation, she feels this reputation is something of a myth. 'I discovered what I really liked doing was solving problems - getting out there. So I gradually moved away from tax.

'It came about through knowing some of the people. I was seen as able to bridge the private and public sectors and knowing how to apply some of the techniques from the private sector.'

However, with dispensing of informal advice at unexpected times taken for granted, these posts - one unpaid, the other for a small fee - add considerably to an already heavy workload and restrict the time she can devote to her other interests. 'But one enjoys it,' she said.

(Photograph omitted)