Decision time: exploring the new Government Finance Function strategy

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 29 July 2019 in Feature
Feature

As the Government Finance Function launches its first five-year strategy, CSW reports from a workshop hosted to consider some of the challenges ahead

The Government Finance Function aims to be at the heart of decision making in government – to be “driving the agenda, not just keeping score”. Clear, reliable information on which to base decisions has always been a central part of good government, but it seems especially important – and challenging – at a time of continued budget restraint, political uncertainty and technological change.

In July, the GFF launched a strategy to help it achieve this ambition. The document was introduced at a conference for senior civil servants from across different departments. Before the day began, a number of these top finance officials gathered to discuss the challenges facing the function, setting the context for the conference to come.

The event was hosted by Paul Layland, Central Government Account Director from Oracle, who set a number of discussion points for attendees to consider. These included how data is being used to drive better decision making; the difficulties in not only attracting and recruiting top talent but retaining talent; how important driving operational excellence and change is to an organisation, without losing focus on “doing the basics right”; and how to drive back office transformation to improve front line efficiencies and effectiveness. Attendees discussed the items on their tables, and at the end each table gave feedback to the wider group.

Although many common themes emerged in discussions – including the best way for GFF to build common practices, and what could be learnt from other functions – two topics dominated: people and data.

All tables discussed the challenges of recruiting, developing and retaining talented people across the GFF. This is something that is acknowledged in the new strategy, which speaks of recruitment challenges “particularly amongst the leadership cadre” and says that government is currently “consulting widely” to understand the reasons for this and the best interventions to address the challenge.

As in many parts of government, pay was a topic for concern, though one participant pointed out that overall packages should be considered rather than just the salaries on offer. While generous pensions may help to retain senior staff, for younger professionals the ability to sell back some pension may be welcome. The GFF strategy states that the function will carry out “a review of the pay and non-pay offer to increase attraction and retainment of high-calibre staff.”

Although the strategy mentions senior roles, at the workshop there was wide agreement that the retention and staffing problems are particularly acute in the mid-career or mid-profession roles. While apprenticeships and Fast Stream can help bring in early-career professionals, and flexibility can be found at the very top grades for better pay, the middle grades present a challenge.

One participant also spoke of the churn between departments, saying “we are all fishing in the same pool”. A colleague on the same table responded that process could be playing a factor here, since it is simpler to recruit internally or existing civil servants than to bring in external candidates.

Retaining and developing talent would be easier, all tables agreed, if there was a clear career pathway for finance professionals. The new strategy outlines that work has already begun in this area – the Government Finance Academy created a ‘career framework’ which is currently being refreshed. It also sets out plans to create a “refreshed Government Finance Taxonomy” which would be embedded across all functional activities and departments.

But a pathway or taxonomy alone would not be enough, according to participants at the workshop. There would also need to be processes in place to facilitate moves so that managers would not need to make it “their life’s mission”, as one delegate put it, to help further staff’s careers.

The GFF strategy sets out a plan to develop not only a career pathway but also centres of excellence – something that was also discussed at the workshop as a potential way to develop overall capability in the function. Identifying departments with specialisms in certain areas would not only help small organisations but also provide career progression.

Several tables also raised the issue of location. The experience of recruiting in London can be very different to that in other areas of the country, while a good career pathway must take into account the location as well as structure of jobs. Some three-quarters of the GFF’s 10,000 members are located outside London, so it’s no wonder that the strategy commits to an “evaluation of the impact of location on the function, considering how we sustainably grow the function to operate across organisational and location boundaries and ensure equity of opportunity nationally”.

Alongside people, the other hot topic across all tables was data.  This is mentioned 52 times in the GFF strategy, plays an explicit part in two of their strategic priorities and underpins the others. Participants at the workshop discussed how the finance function can help to improve the data government produces and uses, including the need for finance to play a role in improving management information, and to include other parts of organisations in the design and maintenance of good data systems.

One attendee made the point that finance professionals should help their colleagues across departments to stop seeing data as a liability – something which might get lost or be corrupted – but as an asset which could improve outcomes for the public. In the same way, for example, that proper design and maintenance of community buildings can improve community safety, proper design and maintenance of data can help achieve public goals.

But a key point from discussions was that the finance function should not try to ‘own’ organisational data, but act as stewards. Instead it should encourage colleagues in the business to build and grow a sense of ownership of the data it produces, as this will help to improve both the use of and stewardship of this data.

Building relationships with other functions and professions was also discussed on different tables. On one, participants discussed the need for a fruitful partnership with tech colleagues, in which finance acted as an intelligent customer, defining needs and setting requirements to get the best support possible. On another table, the discussion moved towards working closely with HR colleagues to support smarter ways of working.

While one delegate was worried that there was a risk the investment in developing a stronger finance function might not deliver sufficient impact and lead to a loss of trust from other parts of the business, most in the room were optimistic. Be proud of the function, said one table – and make the case for investment by making clear the link between efficient and effective ‘back office’ services and effective services on the frontline.

In the foreword to the new strategy, Mike Driver, head of the GFF and chief financial officer at the Ministry of Justice and James Bowler, director general of public spending at the Treasury, set a similar tone – there may be challenges ahead, but there is much for the function to be proud of.  “We have made enormous progress over the past few years and this strategy is an opportunity to clearly set out our ambition to go much further,” they wrote. “It is a chance to engage the whole of the Government Finance Function and beyond in this journey and is a call to arms for the functional leadership. We will inevitably face challenges along the way but are confident that we will rise to these and build a Government Finance Function fit for the 21st Century that provides value for money across government and supports the provision of quality public services.”

Strategic Aims

  • Getting the basics right Sound forecasting and reporting, with robust data, efficient transaction processing, and effective management of risk, supported by standards, policies, guidance and strong functional leadership
  • People, diversity and capability A high performing and diverse function, with great people in the right roles with the right skills
  • How we operate A modern, collaborative finance function that delivers quality services more effectively and efficiently
  • Insight A function informed by analysis, underpinned by good quality data and supported by analytics and visualisation tools
  • Trusted partner The ‘go-to’ partner for colleagues to provide expert advice and informed decision making
  • Planning, risk and performance Driving a strong culture of planning, risk and performance with integrated financial and business planning, aligned with robust risk and assurance
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Suzannah Brecknell
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Suzannah Brecknell is the editor of Civil Service World and tweets @SuzannahCSW 

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