If you work in a logical way, enjoy problem solving and understand public policy and finance, consider a career as a chartered public finance accountant
As a chartered public finance accountant, you'll be responsible for ensuring the effective operation of accounting and financial activities in public sector organisations. It's your job to make sure that public money is being spent properly.
Generally, public finance accountants work for public bodies, such as local and central government and publicly-funded organisations, such as charities. They also work with the police, the military and the NHS. However, a growing number are also employed in industry or private accountancy firms.
Your main duty will be financial reporting and control. Roles in private sector companies that provide services to the public or not-for-profit sector on a consultative basis tend to focus more on reviewing financial systems and efficiency than on central accountancy activities.
Your tasks can include:
- developing and managing financial management systems and policies
- ensuring the effective financial management of public money by supporting the planning and implementation of policy objectives
- making financial decisions and advising key bodies and individuals, such as management boards and budget holders, using financial management information
- preparing and monitoring budgets and accounts
- controlling expenditure and cash flow
- undertaking financial administration
- preparing reports on annual accounts and budget information for the auditor
- controlling the overall capital and revenue budgets for departments
- assessing and advising on estimates for project funding and continuing running costs
- preparing recommendations on large-scale projects
- checking that funding is properly distributed
- conducting internal audits, e.g. working on wage reviews
- checking creditors' invoices
- charging customers for services
- liaising with managerial staff, colleagues and clients
- examining financial records and statements to check for accuracy
- balancing the costs of specific public services against income
- keeping up to date with developments in public sector financial and management accounting practices
- managing and training staff, when employed at a senior level.
- You'll typically start on a salary of £20,000 to £35,000. Once you're qualified, you can expect this to rise to between £35,000 and £50,000.
- With over five years' post-qualifying experience, chartered public finance accountants can expect to earn between £50,000 and £70,000.
- Salaries at senior level can be £80,000+, but there is potential to earn considerably more in certain circumstances.
Exact pay rates vary depending on employer, location, experience and responsibility. Additional benefits such as share options, bonuses, health insurance, pension contributions and company cars are common.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
The average working week is usually between 35 and 40 hours, Monday to Friday. However, extra hours are often required at peak times of the year, and this will include late evening and weekend work.
During training you'll need to study while you're working, which requires commitment, dedication and long hours.
After qualification, part-time careers and job sharing are also possible.
What to expect
- Most of the work is done in an office setting, but some travel to meetings will be necessary. Certain jobs require intensive meetings and involve liaising with clients and key personnel, for example if working in a consultative or audit role.
- Although the work is not generally pressured, specific periods, such as financial year ends, can be stressful. In addition, taking responsibility for the successful management of key financial resources can be demanding.
- The profession is fairly evenly balanced between men and women, with some increase in the number of female entrants.
- Self-employment is sometimes possible for professionals with experience.
- There are opportunities to work on a freelance basis, although this is more likely for those with experience or who have retired. Companies employ freelance staff when the workload is particularly heavy in areas such as audit work. Freelance work involves spending a lot of time away from your desk in a variety of employment environments.
- Jobs exist in most areas throughout the country, particularly in cities and larger towns.
- The role provides the satisfaction of working to support often vital not-for-profit and public sector services.
- Absence from home at night is occasionally needed, but overseas travel is uncommon.
Chartered public finance accountancy is open to all graduates, although a degree (preferably a 2:1) in the following subjects is often sought:
- accounting or finance
- business or management
- politics, government or public administration.
Although any degree subject may be accepted, entrants with relevant degrees will be exempt from the certificate level of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy (CIPFA) Professional Qualification.
An HND in the following subjects may also increase your chances:
- accounting or finance
- business or management
- politics, government or public administration.
As with degrees, a relevant HND will give exemption from the certificate level of the CIPFA qualification.
The minimum academic standard of entry for the CIPFA qualification is a minimum of three GCSE passes (A to C or equivalent) and two A-levels (A to C), including English and mathematics at either level.
The minimum vocational qualification is an NVQ/GNVQ at Level 3, or the Scottish equivalent.
Competition for traineeships is keen but, once qualified, movement is relatively easy. Employers may visit your institution to recruit or notify careers services of any vacancies directly.
If you have a geographical preference, it might be worth identifying appropriate organisations and applying to them directly. Find organisations via:
You'll need to show:
- numerical ability
- strong oral and written communication skills
- attention to detail
- teamworking skills
- IT proficiency
- analytical and problem-solving skills
- integrity and a high level of ethical standards
- a well-motivated approach to respond positively to the demands of the job, successfully combining professional training and working.
Pre-entry experience, while beneficial, is not essential.
However, being familiar with a range of environments and cultures and having an understanding of the ethos and aims of the public and not-for-profit sector will be advantageous.
Typical employers include:
- educational institutions
- healthcare bodies, including the National Health Service (NHS)
- housing associations and charities
- local and central government
- national and district audit bodies
- police authorities
- utilities bodies.
The public sector covers a range of organisations. The term generally refers to bodies that provide services to the public, although this does not necessarily have to be within the public sector.
Public services are typically funded through taxation, and work relates to the balancing of costs rather than the maximisation of profits.
Chartered public finance accountants are employed by large private sector organisations and in industry and commerce. Some work for accountancy firms, which provide services to a range of public sector organisations, such as healthcare bodies, charities and local and central government. The 'big four' are:
There are also a growing number of opportunities to work for specialist accountancy and management consultancy partnerships. These provide a range of advisory, consultative and audit services for the public sector. Some chartered public finance accountants with a good level of experience set up in private practice.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Accounting Web
- CIPFA Recruitment services - provider of professional interim and permanent public sector resources
- CIPFA trainee vacancies - for details of financial management trainee posts
- Local Government Jobs
- NHS Jobs
- Public Finance - CIPFA newsletter containing news and expert comment on public policy and public sector finance
- National and local press.
Recruitment agencies sometimes handle vacancies for qualified and part-qualified applicants. These include:
The main professional body is CIPFA. Its qualifications develop candidates as accountants and financial managers tailored to the public services.
An open learning system exists, as well as day release. Many employers offer paid study leave and structured training schemes. Trainees are required to experience a range of finance, accountancy and audit functions in the workplace, normally guided by a qualified colleague.
Fast-track routes are available to members of the:
- Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA)
- Chartered Accountants Ireland
- Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA)
- Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW)
- Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS)
Some exemptions are available for qualified members of a variety of professional bodies, including the:
In larger organisations, such as local government councils, trainees rotate between a number of departments to gain experience of areas such as:
- audit and financial systems
- financial planning
- service-based accountancy
- treasury management.
The CIPFA Professional Qualification is made up of three stages and takes approximately three years to complete. Candidates are assessed through examinations and must keep a detailed record of their professional experience in the Practical Experience Portfolio (PEP). The qualification is structured as follows:
- Professional Certificate - including financial accounting, management accounting, financial reporting and audit and assurance. Completion of this stage leads to eligibility for affiliate membership of CIPFA.
- Professional Diploma - including public finance and taxation, public sector financial reporting, governance, public policy and ethics, financial management, business strategy and business management. Completion of this leads to eligibility for associate membership of CIPFA.
- Strategic stage - including strategic leadership and strategic financial management. Completion of this final level leads to full membership of CIPFA.
CIPFA's pass rate compares favourably with other accountancy institutes and is often higher for graduate entrants. Students may re-sit failed examinations. Employers' attitudes to examination failures vary, but progress is generally dependent on exam performance.
Many large public sector bodies provide well-structured career paths with many opportunities to develop and specialise. A career in public sector financial management offers a range of challenging and rewarding opportunities.
Employment opportunities can be found in areas ranging from local government to the NHS, and from education to central government and all its specialist agencies. Career development is based on both ability and geographical mobility.
Public finance accountants working in local government are appointed to a specific accounting or auditing role on qualification and are responsible for the overall financial provision of the department or service. Within a couple of years, many chartered qualified accountants are in a position to progress in their careers, and this may involve responsibility for larger resources or the management of entire departments.
Opportunities exist with a variety of employers, and movement between public and private sectors is also possible.
CIPFA specifies that members must undertake mandatory continuing professional development (CPD) as career progress is linked to continued learning through training events, conferences and meetings. An increasing number of public sector employers operate staff development schemes accredited by CIPFA to enable staff development and CPD to run concurrently.