Calculated risks: the pathfinding role of government finance chiefs

By on 16/02/2022 | Updated on 16/02/2022
Monetary minesweeper: involved early in reform plans, finance leaders can help map out a safe path forwards. Illustration by Katy Smith

Finance staff are playing an ever bigger role in strategic decision-making – helping to spot the financial risks in new policies or reforms. At the Global Government Finance Summit, Natalie Leal heard national leaders from around the world debate how to equip workforces for this crucial task

“Over the years, the role of the chief financial officer has really switched from being an accountant to being a strategic advisor,” said Christine Walker, Assistant Comptroller General for financial management transformation at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. “We get pulled into many meetings on the policy side, and on all new programmes we are involved right at the front.”

Wenshan Yeo

In recent years, many civil services have made good progress on professionalising their finance functions – strengthening staff training, tools and career paths, and improving traditional work streams such as spending management and auditing. But in strategic decision-making, chief financial officers (CFOs) are frequently consulted too late in the process, being asked to check completed plans rather than to help create them.

In Canada however, things are changing. Across the federal government, said Walker, in most departments “the CFO is seen as an absolutely key player to have at the table to be able to push initiatives forward”. During the COVID crisis, she met with her equivalents from the policy and science side “almost every day” to shape the government’s response to the pandemic. Thanks to these changing expectations, she said, in the Canadian federal service “you’re not just a CFO, you’re part of that senior management team”.

In Singapore too, finance leadership roles “go beyond the core technical skills,” with positions built on “strategic considerations”, explained Wenshan Yeo, Director of Economic Programmes at the city-state’s Ministry of Finance. “We work with agencies as a partner who enables strategic objectives, rather than just a gatekeeper who only guards the finances.”

Money talks

Walker and Yeo were taking part in a virtual discussion for senior national finance department and treasury leaders – part of the 2021 Global Government Finance Summit, hosted online last autumn. In the two-day Summit’s final session, the delegates explored how best to equip finance leaders with the skills, experience and qualifications required for operational and policy planning, as well as the mechanisms that governments can use to develop a pipeline of finance leadership talent.

Alex Metcalfe

It’s taken around 20 years to bring about the “real shift” she’s witnessed in Canada, said Walker, with a big push to ensure people have the right qualifications and experience for the job. In Canada, all finance directors must now have accounting qualifications, she noted, adding that around 80% of the finance non-execs also now have an accounting designation.

But progress is patchy. While it’s “actually quite heartening to hear from Christine about the great work that’s happened within Canada, it’s probably a bit of a stand-out there compared to what we see otherwise,” said Alex Metcalfe, Global Head of Public Sector at the event’s knowledge partner, the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. For example, within the UK’s National Health Service, only around a third of finance function professionals “are actually qualified accountants,” he said. From ACCA’s research across 52 countries, he believes that the equivalent figure is lower still in most other countries.

Elaine Boyd

Elaine Boyd, Associate Director of Audit Quality and Appointments at Audit Scotland, was also concerned about cuts to investment in training. “One of the things that worries me in public sector finance in the UK is the lack of investment in public accountants over the last few years,” she said. “I think it’s been one of the areas that have been cut quite significantly when there’s been budget pressures.” The number of financial management trainee programmes available in the public sector has fallen in recent years, she added. Metcalfe agreed that a lack of investment in “the pipeline of future talent for public sector leadership” is a concern, but added that “it’s not unique to the UK”.

Investing in people

Recruiting the right people has been difficult for some of the smaller agencies in Singapore, said Peter Lim, Director of Fiscal Policy at the Ministry of Finance. One mechanism that has helped is their ‘finance talent track’, which allows finance professionals to rotate across government departments. One “upside” to this rotation system, he explained, is that it helps to “spread talent across the whole system”.

Peter Lim

Similarly, in Canada the government has recently introduced measures to “better manage executive talent across government,” said Walker. One aim is to broaden finance workers’ range of experience: “The skill set that we want people to have if they want to be an executive or a CFO, is to do the resource management planning – where you’re working with the programme areas a lot more, where you’re working with the central agencies like Department of Finance and the Treasury Board,” she explained.

Civil service leaders must also consider how to attract the best people, which can be difficult in a tight jobs market where public bodies are competing with the private sector. In business, it’s quite normal for finance chiefs to become chief executives – and this is increasingly common in Canada’s civil service, commented Walker. One of her colleagues recently moved into the role of head of operations for another department, she noted: “It’s a very different environment than it was 10 or 15 years ago.” The prospect of reaching the top jobs can only help attract the best candidates into such roles as the profession grows in status and offers more exciting career development prospects.

Attracting talent

As well as ensuring there are good career prospects, focusing on the wellbeing of staff can also attract and retain talented people. Noureddine Bensouda, General Treasurer of the Kingdom of Morocco, described how the government there has been trying to improve the quality of life for civil servants – introducing measures to reduce commuting time, for instance. “We are doing our best to make our employees as happy and accomplished as possible in their workplaces,” he said. “This is the best way to improve their work-life balance and to ensure the quality of service required for citizens.”

Noureddine Bensouda

But developing a talent pipeline remains a challenge for many. In Canada, “the challenge is finding the right people to fill CFO roles. Some financial executives have moved up so quickly that they haven’t got that full set of experience,” said Walker – leaving them ill-equipped to step into roles where they’re advising ministers and departmental leaders. To combat this, organisations are now looking outside government as they seek to fill senior roles such as director generals of finance.

Recruiting from the private sector must be done carefully, however. “In the past, we’ve brought people in and it just didn’t work out, because we just plonked them into these jobs that were so completely different from what they had in the private sector,” said Walker. There are now training programmes in place for private sector recruits, who get matched with a department to gain vital public sector experience before being launched into these complex roles.

Stronger together

As the session drew to a close, the participants reflected on the parallels between many of the issues facing public service financial sectors around the world. “I’ve been really struck by the similarities of the risks and challenges that everyone has had, no matter what part of the world that you’re in,” said Boyd. Whether the threats are around climate change, equalities or the pandemic, “it strikes me that the key to unlocking some of these risks is potentially around partnership working,” she added.

Indeed, the idea that shared problems require shared solutions became something of a theme throughout the Summit’s two days. Wenshan Yeo too felt that many of the big risks the world faces, such as climate change and the pandemic, will require a collective international response: “I think the challenge for us is: how do we catalyse collective investment in these areas?”

Walker pointed out that while finance teams across the globe are “exhausted” following the pandemic, there are lessons to be learnt about how to build “crisis resilience” before the world is rocked by another disruptive event. ”So now that we’ve been through this, how do we take these learnings” and apply them in the future, she asked. “We’re going to have more crises, so how do we do it without burning everybody out?”

While finance teams and civil servants may be tired, the shared challenges facing governments across the world could act as a catalyst for change. “You know, nothing much can happen for a decade, and then suddenly a decade can happen in a year,” said Lim. “So I think there’s a lot of impetus and energy. It’s a very exciting time to be part of the change. But we must get it right.”

The 2021 Government Finance Summit was held online in late October 2021. This is the last of four reports on the Summit’s sessions, covering the session named ‘Leading the way in civil service finance’. The first covered the discussion on how COVID marks a ‘global inflection point’ in many economies; the second explored how to fix governments’ broken financial systems; and the third examined the spiralling demands of crisis response. To ensure that people can speak freely at the event, we check quotes with the speakers before publication.

  • Global Government Finance Summit 2021 attendees
  • Noureddine Bensouda, General Treasurer of the Kingdom, Morocco
  • Gil S. Beltran, Undersecretary, Department of Finance, Philippines
  • Pablo de Ramón-Laca, Director General – Treasury and Financial Policy, General Secretariat of the Treasury and International Finance (Spanish Treasury), Ministry of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation, Spain
  • Peter Lim, Director – Fiscal Policy, Ministry of Finance, Singapore
  • Leena Mörttinen, Permanent Under-Secretary, International and Financial Markets Affairs, Finland
  • Markus Sovala, Director General, Statistics Finland, Finland
  • Christine Walker, Assistant Comptroller General – Financial Management Transformation, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Canada
  • Christian Dahlhaus, Head of Division, German Recovery and Resilience Plan/ Task Force Covid-19, Federal Ministry of Finance, Germany
  • Wenshan YEO, Director – Economic Programmes, Ministry of Finance, Singapore
  • João Boa Francisco Quipipa, Economist and Government Advisor, Angola
  • Elaine Boyd, Associate Director of Audit Quality and Appointments, Audit Scotland, Scotland
  • Maggie McGhee, Executive Director – Governance, ACCA
  • Alex Metcalfe, Global Head of Public Sector, ACCA
  • Jennifer Duncan, Vice-President Government Innovation, Mastercard
  • Dr. Shefiu Abiodun Muritala, Accountant General – Lagos State, Nigeria
  • Haji Ibsa Gendo, Director General, Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, Ethiopia

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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