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Join the conversation: Next roundtable scheduled for 15 May, Stafford, register an interest to attend

In the first in a series of research investigations on the topic of ‘digital and finance leadership’, CIPFA and Eduserv held a roundtable discussion this month with some leading public sector CFOs and experts in the field.

The roundtable discussions covered key areas of concern and interest including:

  • What role should finance leaders play in digital programmes (and are they doing it)?
  • Are finance professionals ready for ‘digital’ in terms of their skills, awareness, working practices, accounting standards and professional training?
  • How mature is the use of digital tools and practices within the finance function and how are these changing the responsibilities of finance professionals?
  • What are the key future digital trends and how these impacting the public sector and CFOs: e.g. machine learning, AI, automation, cloud solutions and the rise of data science?

These questions are not easy to answer but deserve attention if we are to ensure that tomorrow’s CFO leaders are equipped with the skills they will need in future digital businesses – that was the view of our experts.

CFOs and CIOs see things differently but must work together

Our experts saw that a strong alliance between IT and Finance was key to matching technical and business opportunity, and that leading digital change was not the natural role for CFO alone. They must work together to carefully monitor risk in digital programmes and to develop sound business cases with tangible and measurable benefits.

Interestingly, the discussion about the problems of effective business cases for digital programmes did not chime with views sometimes heard from CIOs.

CIOs say that it can be difficult, especially in the public sector, to invest in revenue-based IT platforms such as cloud, because of the focus on cutting revenue costs. Many IT projects are funded on a capital project basis, so a combination of extreme financial pressure and accounting practices make business cases harder for new or revenue based digital solutions.

But our CFOs did not agree. Whilst recognising the problem, they gave examples of how accounting practices can accommodate a good case, revenue or not, although sometimes the benefits realisation case is not compelling, and maybe IT teams need heightened business skills.

Providing finance professionals with skills fit for a digital future

There was much debate about the needs of future finance professionals in training and development and whether today’s career support is fit for a digital future. This included a view that traditional career paths for finance specialists will gradually disappear, as Robotic Process Automation (RPA), machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) erode or remove some of the more traditional finance roles that have provided a bedrock of training and early accountancy experience.

New ‘entry level’ finance roles and apprenticeships may now be required, it was suggested, with new areas of responsibilities and training beyond becoming a ‘good accountant’. This might also help to reduce dependency on expensive external specialist skills and consultants, which had grown from current budget pressures. As one said, it is important to “share and build where possible, including skills, rather than buying in”.

Notably, the future skills portfolio of the successful finance leader it was felt must have a greater focus on strategic planning, risk management, resource value maximisation and some newer specialist skills such as data science. This would increase digital maturity and the contribution finance can make to digital programmes.

Trends that matter most

Our attendees were also clear in their views of some newer fintech trends, such as Blockchain and crypto currencies - they have no place in the armoury of the public sector CFO today. Indeed, the general comment about blockchain was “if we want to accelerate digital public services let’s get basic access and broadband availability fixed first!”.

But data science was seen as a critical topic, and one which finance professionals need to embrace and to understand, or risk being left behind. This is not only about the potential of data to transform public services, such as targeting resources, building better customer insight and improving risk management, but also, about the future audit requirements for the ever-growing complexity of today’s integrated systems.

In general, our panel of experts felt that public sector finance professionals were changing fast to keep up with both technology change and digital service design, but it was not always easy. Some trends were over-hyped and inevitably there were challenges in financial training, building skills for the future and in managing the over-ambitious optimism of some digital pundits.

 

Join the conversation: Next roundtable scheduled for 15 May, Stafford, register an interest to attend

About the author

Jos Creese

As Principal Analyst, Jos acts as the face of our Local Government Executive Briefing programme, independently educating IT and business leaders on a range of business issues and technological challenges. Jos is an independent consultant specialising in helping organisations shift to digital operating models, especially in the public sector. With over 25 years' IT management experience, he has held a number of CIO and non-executive director positions, including with Hampshire County Council as CIO and CDO, supporting business change programmes enabled by IT and leading many IT shared services and IT partnerships in the region. He was president of the Society of IT Management in 2010 and is current president of BCS (the Chartered Institute for IT). He has been named the ‘most influential and innovative UK CIO’ listed in the ‘Top 100 CIO’ since its inception.

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