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Public Finance Accountancy

As the term aptly suggests, public finance accountancy focuses on accounting practices purely in public sector organisations. These include any organisation that is funded by the taxpayer and not-for-profit organisations (NPOs) or charities.

Accountants are vital in this field to help the organisations to set out budgets, process the vast amounts of payments and financial information that goes into the running of public sector organisations and to make sure that the government is spending public money appropriately.

The thick of it…

Public finance accountants can work in-house in a local government department, or even in central government, or else work with these organisations as an employee of an accountancy firm or professional services firm.

There are plenty of things to be done within public finance. There are accountants who perform predominantly administrative tasks, keeping the books up to date, documenting all transactions, processing payroll and payments and liaising with external auditors (third party accountants who come in to check that the organisation’s financial information is a true representation of their finances) to provide them with all the financial information they need.

Then there are the auditors themselves. Audits can be carried out internally (the organisation’s bosses request them to gather reports on how a department/organisation as a whole is doing financially, and to spot if there are any tweaks to be made to make things more efficient or cost effective, such as in staffing or technology). They also have to be conducted externally by law – and these are carried out by auditors from professional services firms or specialist accountancy firms.    

Management accountants also feature in public finance accountancy. They help to formulate business strategy by guiding the heads of these organisations on accounting matters.

Attributes & skills for public finance accountancy...

Whatever the role, number crunching prowess and a mind for solving puzzles is essential here. But it’s not just about being good at maths! You’ll also need to be a great communicator and able to explain complex financial information to non-financially minded folk and have the ability to meet tight deadlines and manage a heavy workload, particularly when it gets to the end of the financial year.

How do I get into this area?

There are plenty of ways to get into public finance accountancy. A popular route is to join a graduate scheme with one of the big accountancy firms (any degree discipline is accepted in most cases – score!), earn your stripes with work experience and a professional qualification (such as the ACA, ACCA, ATT or AAT) and develop your specialism in this area as you go. A number of these firms also run Higher Apprenticeships and School Leaver Programmes which will put you on course too.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) has recently launched a brand new public finance apprenticeship scheme – a one-year apprenticeship that sets you up with paid work experience and involves work towards the AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) professional qualification.  

CIPFA is the only body solely for professionals in public finance. If public finance accountants earn chartered status with CIPFA they can put themselves in a very strong position to bag the top jobs in this field. The salaries aren’t too shabby either! Trainee positions start at around £18,000 to £30,000 and can hit up to £80,000 or more in the most senior positions.