Magazine article Public Finance

Feeling the Benefit

Magazine article Public Finance

Feeling the Benefit

Article excerpt

WHITEHALL'S ACCOUNTANTS have not been getting a good press in recent years. Criticism of central government's financial management - from Departmental Capability Reviews, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee - has been relentless.

There has been some improvement. For instance, all central government finance directors are now professionally qualified. But with government departments expected to lead from the front in the austerity drive, the pressure on the finance function has been stepped up.

Coincidentally, on the day of my interview with Hunada Nouss, finance director general at the Department for Work & Pensions, the NAO has published its latest attack. Apparently good financial management is still not embedded in civil service culture and the deficit reduction programme could be at risk as a result. So what does Nouss think about this assessment?

'I would say the NAO report takes a snapshot that is somewhat out of date already/ she tells me. 'Have we got it sussed? Not totally. But are we on the road to really understanding where our major risks lie and how we manage them? I think we are.'

Nouss is in a good position to comment. She has worked in both the private sector - as an accountant at Arthur Andersen and as finance director for Diageo and Burger King - and, more recently, in the public sector at the Department for Communities & Local Government and now at the DWP.

Her current responsibilities include the management of 1,500 staff, the financial control of benefit payments totalling £150bn a year and a departmental budget of £8bn. As well as her core finance roles, she's in charge of planning, procurement, estates provision and risk and assurance - all at a rime when the DWP is embarking on a radical and controversial reform of the welfare system.

Nouss suggests that significant progress has been made across Whitehall as the finance function has embraced a more professional approach. The DWP has been ahead of the curve, partly because it has a strong operational background - bringing together a "doing" department with two high-profile agencies: Jobcentre Plus and the Pension, Disability and Carers Service.

'The culture is changing,' Nouss asserts. 'Manyyears of talking about it and bringing new people in have gradually made a difference. I also think the tightening fiscal climate has actually made it much easier for us as finance professionals to make our case. I say to my team "our time has come".'

Of course, some of them might not see it quite that way. Whitehall is seeking to reduce the costs of its corporate functions, including finance, by 40% over the period of the Comprehensive Spending Review, and the DWP will be no exception. Nouss expects more than 20% but fewer than 40% of finance staff will leave during this time, although she hopes this will not involve compulsory redundancies.

She accepts that it might be difficult for finance staff to focus on the intricacies of the planned new universal benefit if they are worried about thenjobs. 'Managing that personal challenge is hard,' she says. 'For those of us who have been in the private sector, we have gone through cycles and worries about losing our jobs twice, three times, four times in our career. I think in the public sector that really hasn't been a reality.'

Nouss believes that finance staff will have to be multi-skilled to provide flexibility within the department. She doesn't see this as a return to the oft-criticised 'gifted amateur* culture of the past - but as a means to do more for less. …

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