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Accounting for the public sector

Our public bodies are experiencing unprecedented change. We find out how professional services firm Grant Thornton is involved
Types of work

The public sector is a huge part of the UK's business landscape and its organisations often have financial needs and organisational complexities comparable to those of any public company (plc). In addition, they're held to strict controls on how they use their taxpayer funding. So auditing and advising the public sector is big business, and recent changes enacted by the government mean professional services firms like Grant Thornton are more involved than ever in carrying out this vital work. Here we find out about what it's like to work with the public sector from a senior employee and a recent joiner.

Paul Hughes

is a director within Public Sector Assurance at Grant Thornton in London, and has almost twenty years of public sector experience. He explains Grant Thornton's work in this area, and tackles some of its current big issues.

What does Public Sector Assurance involve?

Our main function is to perform external audits on public bodies: councils, NHS trusts, police authorities and so on. As with listed companies, we check their accounts to make sure everything adds up and is in order.

But auditing public sector bodies in particular comes with extra responsibilities. As part of our audit work we give value-for-money assessments on whether public bodies have suitable arrangements for economy, efficiency and effectiveness when spending public money. And as well as this, in local government we ensure that applications for government money are handled properly, and answer questions from members of the public about public spending.

Ultimately public sector audit is arguably even more essential than private. As an investor in a company you choose whether to take a stake in it, and of how much. But none of us has a choice about paying tax, so everybody has effectively invested in these bodies. Therefore it's doubly important to ensure that the public pound is spent appropriately and accounted for properly.

Has public sector audit changed since the coalition government's cuts started?

While the work is in essence the same, the big change for us is the government's intention to abolish the Audit Commission, and the recent outsourcing of its in-house audit practice, which used to do 70 per cent of public sector audits itself. Now all of the work has been opened up to external companies, and Grant Thornton emerged as the biggest winner from the process as we secured contracts to audit 40 per cent of all local government and NHS bodies. The department has effectively quadrupled in size in the last year, so it's a very exciting time for us.

What are the major trends in public sector audit right now?

The most obvious trend is a stronger focus on ensuring public bodies are financially sound in an environment of funding reductions. We do a lot of advisory work with public bodies to help implement their cost-saving programmes, and to ensure that they manage the delivery of these savings appropriately.

We're also seeing a greater-than-ever focus on governance of these bodies, making sure that processes are in place to make them properly accountable to their stakeholders, including parliament, partners, regulators and their local communities.

Lastly, reorganisation of services and restructuring of public bodies, particularly within the NHS, is another expanding area of work. Services are being transferred around and outside of the public sector, hospitals are being merged and new management and delivery arrangements are being forged. And now some public sector bodies can effectively be declared bankrupt, which isn't something we've seen before, so managing that is a new and exciting challenge.

Why is public sector audit an exciting career choice?

It's an unprecedented time of change in the public sector. Our clients are facing their biggest challenges in a generation, and with these come opportunities to audit and advise dynamic organisations in the process of change.

None of our clients are doing things in the way they used to. Everything's changing, and dealing with changing clients and the challenges they're facing makes for interesting work.

Katie Haines

graduated from the University of Exeter with a degree in Mathematics in 2011 and joined Grant Thornton as an audit associate in their Bristol office. She explains what life is like at the firm for new joiners.

Why did you choose Grant Thornton?

In my second year I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do, so I applied for a lot of different internships in all sorts of areas. I managed to get an internship at Grant Thornton for nine weeks that summer, which I thought was great, and I was offered a graduate job there at the end. One of the good things about Grant Thornton is that a lot of interns are offered permanent jobs.

Why do you like working here?

I like how varied my job is; even as an intern I spent a lot of time on different client sites, and saw the whole scope of the work the firm does. When, like me, you don't come from an accountancy background, you can imagine that accountants just sit at a desk and look at numbers all day, but that's not the case at all.

Also, I like the fact that our work is seasonal and we have different things to do throughout the year. In the summer we do final accounts, then we do grant certifications (checking that applications for government money are in order and being put to appropriate use), then interim audits come after that before final year accounts roll round again. The changes help keep things interesting.

Why public sector work?

I've always cared more about government, healthcare and other public sector activity than commercially-focused businesses. And in this area you work with and see the implications of big political changes like budget cuts and, to some extent, help manage them.

What sort of training do you do?

In public sector audit we study for a qualification called CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy), which is a lot like the ACA qualification for chartered accountants, but with an extra focus on public sector work. Every couple of months I go to London for a week of college, which we supplement with study outside of working hours, to prepare us for end-of-year exams. I like the studying element, especially as it gives everyone a fresh start - I'm not from an accountancy background, so it's reassuring to know that we're taught everything we need as we go along.

Tell us something surprising about your job.

I like that I get to travel. From the office in Bristol I've visited lots of our clients in the south-west, and the changes of scenery help to keep the job interesting. We have major offices in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, as well as London, which means you don't have to be confined to London to work at Grant Thornton if you don't want to be. And, especially since we've taken on so many new clients across the UK this year, there's more scope than ever to build a rewarding career here.