Public Sector Accountant

The Job and What's Involved

Public sector accountants are responsible for making sure that public organisations' financial management is effective and efficient, and makes the best use of public money. Examples of public organisations include central and local government, the National Health Service (NHS), colleges, housing associations and charities.

Public services usually have a fixed budget each year. Public sector accountants safeguard public money and advise departments on how to organise and improve the service they offer. Their responsibilities may include:

  • Preparing budgets and final accounts.
  • Controlling expenditure and cash flow.
  • Monitoring how money is spent.
  • Making sure that legal records of financial transactions are properly kept.
  • Developing and managing systems for recording income and expenditure.
  • Auditing (verifying) accounts.
  • Developing short and long-term strategies with the management team.
  • Advising on corporate risk, including safeguarding assets, risk avoidance and insurance.
  • Supporting organisations' decision making.
  • Advising on anti-fraud and anti-corruption strategies and measures.
  • Reporting on performance.

Accountants may work in the finance or internal audit function of an organisation. Alternatively, they may work for an accountancy firm that offers professional accounting services to public bodies. These services involve meeting clients, advising them on their accounting procedures, and helping them to make the most of their resources. Accountants may specialise in a particular area, for example audit, taxation or financial control.

Accountants may also work as external auditors, for the Audit Commission or National Audit Office for example, monitoring public sector financial activities.

The normal working week is 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Work beyond these hours may be required on occasions, especially during peak times, such as the end of the financial year, or to meet deadlines. Many organisations have flexible working hours. Part-time work and job sharing may be possible.

Public sector accountants work in an office, often at a computer, and usually as part of a larger team. They may spend some time out of the office visiting clients and attending meetings. Some may have to travel long distances and spend time away from home. They may work abroad if their organisation has international links.

Smart dress is usually required.

Starting salaries may be around £16,000 to £25,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Public sector accountants are employed throughout the UK, mainly in large towns and cities. Their number has increased in recent years and is likely to continue to grow.

Employers include:

  • Local government bodies.
  • The Civil Service.
  • The National Health Service.
  • The Audit Commission, Audit Scotland and the National Audit Office.
  • Schools and colleges.
  • Housing associations.
  • Police authorities.
  • Non profit-making charities and trusts.
  • Accountancy firms that offer professional accounting services to public sector organisations.

Jobs are advertised in local and national newspapers, and on the internet. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) also publishes lists of trainee vacancies.

Education and Training

There are different entry routes:

Graduate training schemes - entry is with a degree. No particular degree subject is required, although subjects such as accounting, finance, business studies, management studies, maths and economics are particularly relevant. Employers often ask for at least a 2.2 degree. This is the most usual entry route. Entry is very competitive.

Trainee accountant - entry is usually with at least A levels/H grades or equivalent. On starting work, many trainees work towards CIPFA's professional qualification. Entry requirements for the qualification are two A levels/three H grades (A-C) and three GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), including English and maths at either level. Alternative qualifications are accepted, including BTEC/SQA national certificates and NVQ's/SVQ's at Level 3.

Accounting technician - some people with GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3) become accounting technicians. They may work towards a qualification such as the Association of Accounting Technicians' Accounting Qualification or the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants' Certified Accounting Technician qualification. They may then progress to professional accountancy training.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Entrants are trained by their employers. CIPFA focuses specifically on public finance, so many entrants study for the CIPFA qualification. This consists of three parts:

Certificate - includes financial accounting, management accounting, financial reporting, and financial management systems and techniques.

Diploma - includes audit and assurance, leadership and management, financial and performance reporting, accounting for decision making, governance and public policy, public finance and taxation.

Final Test of Professional Competence - includes strategic business management, and a finance and management case study.

Study is by day release, block release or distance learning and can be completed in around three years. Students with relevant qualifications may be exempt from some modules of the qualification.

Trainees with some employers work towards a different accountancy qualification. The National Audit Office's graduate trainees, for example, work towards the ICAEW chartered qualification.

All professionally qualified accountants are required to develop their professional skills. They do this by undertaking Continuing Professional Development (CPD).

CIPFA, for example, requires accountants working full time to complete 120 hours of CPD activity over a three-year period, with at least 20 hours in any one year. CPD can include such activities as research and attending courses.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A public sector accountant should:

  • Be good with figures.
  • Have good computer skills.
  • Have excellent communication skills, both spoken and written.
  • Be able to work under pressure and to deadlines.
  • Have integrity.
  • Have good research, analytical and problem-solving skills.
  • Be able to build trust and handle confidential information with discretion.
  • Work well as part of a team.
  • Be comfortable taking responsibility for their decisions.

Your Long Term Prospects

Most public sector organisations have formal promotion structures. It is possible for qualified accountants to progress to senior management positions such as chief executive, director of finance or board director. Some accountants move between employers to progress more quickly.

The CIPFA qualification is recognised in industry, commerce and private accountancy firms, so public sector accountants may transfer to work in these areas.

Some experienced public sector accountants set up their own accountancy business.

It is possible to work abroad.

Get Further Information

Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT),
140 Aldersgate Street, London EC1A 4HY
Tel: 0845 863 0800

Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA),
ACCA Connect, 2 Central Quay, 89 Hydepark Street,
Glasgow G3 8BW
Tel: 0141 582 2000

The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA),
26 Chapter Street, London SW1P 4NP
Tel: 020 8849 2287

The Institute of Chartered Accountants
in England & Wales (ICAEW),
Gloucester House, 399 Silbury Boulevard,
Central Milton Keynes MK9 2HL
Tel: 01908 248100

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