Accountants who work in local government and the NHS play a vital role in bringing the public the best possible services. And they can also influence policy. Nick Jackson reports

Being part of that process is what makes public finance accountancy special. "In the private sector you're making money," explains Frank Garvey, student recruitment manager at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA). "In the public sector it's about using government funding more effectively to enhance services." Public finance accountancy is one way for budding accountants to avoid selling out to the corporate monoliths without selling themselves short, counting the widgets for a small business. "In public finance accountancy there's real scope to execute change," says Garvey. "And you're doing some good for the community, rather than just making larger profits for shareholders."

It was that desire to combine an interest in finance and public service that drew Ravi Lakhani, 24, into public finance accounting. After graduating with a BSc in financial economics from Essex University, Lakhani joined Leicester City Council as a trainee accountant. The council pays the fees for his CIPFA course and gives him a day a week off to go to college and study.

It's not just about doing good. "I didn't want to go to work everyday for a profit figure," he says. "The public sector is more interesting and more varied." Lakhani's passion is providing financial strategy on large scale capital projects, like building a new school or hospital, finding the most efficient way to get it done.

"The typical figure of an accountant is as a bookkeeper, but you're getting involved in projects that really engage you analytically and make you explore things further," he says. "And you can take it into a wide variety of things, it's not just about sticking to accountancy."

You don't need a background in finance either. When Amy Thoroughgood, 25, left school all she knew was that she didn't want to go to university. "Accountancy was a career I could do without a degree," she says. But not without a lot of hard graft. "Doing the CIPFA training was a good move for me, but you have to be prepared to give up your own time to study," she says. "You have to be self-motivated and quite committed, but it's interesting and the variety certainly keeps you on your toes."

Now Thoroughgood is finance manager at the £170m a year Southend Hospital NHS Trust, writing financial reports for the wards on levels of spending and staffing, working out how much money the hospital will have, and costing plans so the hospital can work out what that money will mean for patients. "It's all about making ideas a reality," she says. "Assisting clinicians in moving forward with their plans and ideas for the trust."

The first role of the accountant in helping bring about those changes is by making sure the money is available so public services can do their job. "My job is to square the circle of how to improve services without raising council tax or relying on government resources," says Steven Hughes, strategic director of resources and acting chief executive for Birmingham City Council. Hughes and his team free up revenues for front line services by cutting costs elsewhere, by automating administration for example, or bringing different services in a community under one roof. A couple of years ago council housing in Birmingham was in a dire state, but by improving management and outsourcing maintenance the council has recently managed to win approval at their last inspection, and improve standards of living for 70,000 council tenants.

"Accountants are really quite important if you want to make changes in any organisation. If something's important it has a pound note attached to it," he says. "But if you want to change things it's important you have a wider vision, and the CIPFA qualification encourages that."

The people who really change things in government are the top management, jobs that often go to public finance accountants because of their experience of implementing policy. Jaki Meekings, 51, is a CIPFA trained accountant who now works for the NHS as director of the South Specialist Commissioning Group in the South of England, making sure that the right specialist treatment is available in the right place in an area with a population of 14 million. "I develop policies from the decision making process at a national level through to delivery," she says. "My job is to make sure they happen."

Recently Meekings has helped move specialist burns units out of manufacturing areas, where most burns accidents used to happen, to areas more easily accessed by children and the poor, the most common victims today.

Helping children access medical treatment is a long way from the public perception of accountants as merciless bean counters, but Meekings' accountancy training has been essential to her work. "Clinicians know they can rely on the quality of your analysis and advice," she says. "And that confidence is a crucial part of negotiating through change."

Ensuring that taxpayers have a similar confidence in public service reform is just as crucial, and accountants can find themselves making sure that not just millions but billions of pounds of taxpayers' money is well spent. Steve Bundred, 52, is chief executive of the Audit Commission, the organisation responsible for appointing auditors and inspecting the quality of services in 11,000 local government and NHS bodies across the UK, with a combined turnover of £180 billion a year.

Bundred worked as a top level economist for several years before getting involved in local government. He quickly saw that if he wanted to get ahead in local government he had to get qualified as a public finance accountant. But it wasn't all about career advancement. "Local government finance is really interesting," he says. "Through that function you get a really good understanding of the complexity of local government."

That understanding of how to get things done in government allows you to influence policy at every level, setting the foundations of the public services for the 21st century. "These are really complex organisations offering really rewarding careers, and the finance function is central to their success," says Bundred. "That's why so many public finance accountants go on to become directors and chief executives."

How a career in public finance gives an insight into the workings of government

Amana Humayun, 26, is an executive for PricewaterhouseCoopers' government and public sector division

I'd always enjoyed political philosophy at school, which got me interested in government and the public sector. After finishing my degree in law and government at Manchester, and a political theory masters at LSE, I wanted to develop my interest in the public sector as a career.

I never particularly wanted to be an accountant but I wanted to understand finance, and in the public sector there are so many different styles of financial management, whether you're looking at health, education, central government or local government.

In the private sector there's only one set of accounts, and things always look roughly the same, but in the public sector there's so much diversity. I wanted to work with that diversity, but I didn't want to be constrained by one organisation, as you are in the public sector, so I joined PricewaterhouseCoopers' government and public sector division.

Now I do external and internal audits, so I make sure the balance sheet does balance, and that organisations are getting value for money. And we also do consultancy, advising government departments on how to implement new policies.

The best thing about my job is that I have a number of clients. My portfolio includes the House of Commons, the Department of Trade and Industry, and a range of other government agencies. So there's a massive diversity, which is great, and with that comes diverse management practices and accountancy treatments. That's the good thing about the CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) qualification, it trains you in all these. My job has also helped me develop the academic interests I had at university. All my knowledge was purely theoretical, but theory only takes you so far. You can study something but still not really understand it. Seeing how government organisations work has given me an extra insight into and understanding of government.

The lowdown

How do I qualify?

To become a public finance accountant you will need to be Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) qualified. This is a three year work-based programme, open to school leavers and graduates alike. Most students are supported by their employers: fees are paid, and study leave provided for, either in a block or as one day a week off work.

How much will I earn?

In the public sector, trainees earn between £15,000 and £25,000, on qualification that rises to between £27,000 and £35,000. After five years you should be earning £40,000 to £50,000. Senior management gets up to £150,000 a year, while chief executives can earn over £200,000.

Where will I work?

Your job is to look after all aspects of government funding, so you can find yourself working for a variety of different organisations working in local government, central government, hospitals, charities, or private firms that do consultancy work for any of these.