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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Laboratory technicians carry out routine laboratory tests and perform a variety of technical support functions to help scientists, technologists and others with their work. They can work in research and development, scientific analysis and testing, education and manufacturing.
They are employed in a wide range of scientific fields which affect almost every aspect of our lives.
A public sector accountant should:
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.
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
Additional resources for job seekers and those already in a job.