Propelled by austerity: the changing role of the government chief finance officer

What was once viewed by some as a professional backwater is now at the vanguard of transformation. Research by EY explores the challenges CFO’s still face

The UK government’s finance function comprises more than 10,000 staff across many dozens of organisations. It is responsible for spending and disbursements worth more than £700bn per year, and for managing assets worth more than £1,300bn and liabilities of over £3,000bn. Since the turn of the century, the profession has been changing fast – becoming more professional, and taking an increasingly prominent and strategic role in organisations’ strategy, transformation and delivery.

There was a time when the finance function within government was viewed by some as a professional backwater. However, austerity has propelled the function into the vanguard of transformation. “If you go back a few years, the finance team had to just get on with what it was told,” says Alastair Bridges, former finance director at the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs. “That has changed – certainly in the rhetoric. Departments know they need a good finance function and permanent secretaries all value good financial directors.”

Our study looks at how CFOs’ roles have changed in recent years, and how finance leaders and their teams will need to develop to meet their organisations’ needs and address the challenges facing them. It also explores the ways in which CFOs can develop the next generation of finance leaders, helping to foster a talent pool that will sustain the finance profession over the years to come.

Top challenges faced by CFOs:

  1. Lack of autonomy for decision-making
  2. Maintaining existing finance function
  3. Procuring efficient MI systems for better decision-making
  4. Improving financial planning and literacy
  5. Financial and skills capability
  6. Government budgetary pressures

“It is essential for CFOs to take a more strategic role,” says Jon Thompson, chief executive of HM Revenue & Customs and a former head of the government finance profession. This shift has required the profession to develop skills not always traditionally associated with the accountancy profession — including business planning, risk management, influencing and strategic thinking.

To see the full findings click here to read the full report, and if you would like to speak to a member of our team please visit us on or email the EY Government & Public Sector Team on


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