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Sharing finance knowledge locally

Regional public-sector finance networks are developing across the UK. Their aim: to share knowledge, best practice, and personnel.

By Oliver Rowe

An initiative within the UK’s public sector to establish regional finance communities that can share best practice and personnel is gaining ground. Its path could provide guidance to others looking to start similar networks, and its success meant that in January 2018 the initiative received an Outstanding Contribution to the Finance Function award at the UK Government Finance Function Event.

One of the key finance professionals behind the move was Dave Willis, FCMA, CGMA, former senior finance business partner at the UK government’s Department for Work and Pensions. He said the network has sparked more than traditional knowledge sharing — departments have also shared people. He gave the example of one department — the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) — that was tasked with considerable unplanned work to support Brexit negotiations. Government finance staff nearby in the North East moved across to DEFRA on 13-week placements to successfully support this work.

Willis said this collaborative approach could be replicated in public sectors elsewhere in the world. “We’re all facing the same sort of challenges with technology advances and those sorts of things. So, common groups of people coming together from the government sectors in a catchment area which is more local — there’s no reason why that can’t work.” He added that a conversation would be welcomed with people thinking of establishing similar finance communities in other countries, as well as with those who have already done so.

There were challenges along the way, however, explained Martin Brewer, ACMA, CGMA, who is head of accounting at the Food Standards Agency, the UK government body with a £130 million ($165 million) budget to ensure food is safe and what it says it is, and to protect public health and consumers’ wider interests in food across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Brewer explained there were technological and security barriers to discussing the project beyond face-to-face and telephone meetings. “We found a real challenge with communication outside of those meetings because there is no easy-to-use common platform for effective communication across government.”

Geographical challenges

Willis added that the large relative size of the north of England had been unwieldy for this project. He said: “Just to give you a little flavour, going from Newcastle to Liverpool, both parts of the north of the country, takes three hours, which is too long and too big.” The solution was to divide the northern area into five smaller subregions, with the group of five finance leaders taking one area each.

As part of the drive to collaborate within local areas, conference-style learning events have been arranged to bring together government finance professionals.

Suzanne Ibbotson, ACMA, CGMA, head of finance capability at the UK government’s Department of Health and Social Care, who is also responsible for producing its annual report, said the initial CPD events in the north of England in April and May 2018 were replicated last autumn and scaled up with bigger venues because of demand.

Ibbotson added that spring events this year have been even more successful, with the Wales & South West network hosting an event, and delegate numbers up across all regions.

The regional networks have benefited from support from the government’s central finance function team. Working closely with the central teams, they have influenced and informed policy direction. The networks’ work with the Government Finance Academy has led to a comprehensive and consistent learning and development offer that covers core “how to” fundamentals as well as more advanced skill building. The central team continues to support the networks by providing senior finance professionals to speak at the learning events and give an update from the centre.

Within another part of the UK’s public sector, the National Health Service (NHS) has been able to take a more centrally driven approach to develop the finance function within the UK’s regions.

NHS England’s Future-Focused Finance initiative, set up in 2013, is committed to developing networks geographically and for different job levels within the NHS.

The programme’s aim is to empower local finance staff to champion diversity and accountants’ nontechnical “behavioural” skills. It also focuses on how digitisation, artificial intelligence, and robotics are impacting finance; and on accreditation for NHS organisations so that they can demonstrate good practice in how they develop their finance staff.

David Ellcock, the programme’s director, said he has discussed this approach with the Healthcare People Management Association, which represents HR professionals working in the NHS and in commercial health organisations. “They are keen to replicate the approach we have taken — in HR as well,” he explained. “I think the idea of a central organisation that relies on volunteers, helping those volunteers work in networks … can work almost anywhere for any given function, provided there is clear steer from the centre on what it is they want to achieve.”

Oliver Rowe is an FM magazine senior editor.

This article was originally published in FM magazine.