As the CIPFA Annual Conference takes place this week, and as Jaki Salisbury takes over as President and Rob Wightman is appointed the new Chief Executive, what should be the key six priorities for this august body?
I was asked this question a few days ago by a well-respected public sector leader who was wondering aloud to what extent professional bodies such as CIPFA are demonstrating their 'relevance' in the contemporary policy and financial environment. Seeking to rise to the challenge, I have come up with six actions that could be seen as relevant to both CIPFA and to the conditions in which its members have to work.
I have decided not to include the obvious and immediate internal issues of financial sustainability, and organisational structures and capacity. I am sure that these will be high on both Jaki's and Rob's thoughts. Rather, I have chosen to focus on the Institute's' external role and contribution.
There is nothing magical about the number 'six' in this context, and I readily accept that there will be at least another six issues that could warrant being on any short list including the future of UK public sector audit.
Still, my personal 'six' suggestions are:
• drawing on evidence and professional knowledge, expertise and experience of CIPFA members be ready and willing to challenge unachievable public expenditure targets and budget cuts whoever is setting them, and in particular, explain where necessary the long term consequences of these cuts
• support CIPFA members having to advise on hard, difficult and often painful budget decisions in local authorities, the NHS and elsewhere - especially when they are being challenged or pressurised unreasonably by their political and/or executive leaders; and enable CIPFA members to support their organisations to be more strategic and to offer enhanced skills in fields such a risk management, commercial awareness, options appraisal and business planning
• develop appropriate non-bureacratic 'accounting standards' for 'Community Budgets' or 'Total Place' and persuade Government and others to adopt these. Some form of 'Place Based Accounting' is desperately needed if we are to secure the best use of resources to maximise outcomes whilst ensuring clear accountability and encouraging agencies to invest where financial benefits accrue to one or more other agencies
• develop models for universal mandatory standards for accounting, audit, accountability and transparency for public services including when services are contracted from the business or social/third sectors
• develop and promote strategic accounting approaches to support the mobilisation of public, community and business sectors' physical, financial, social and human assets in a place for the benefit of local communities and their economies, and used to leverage in new investment
• collaborate with CIPFA members, their employers and relevant other public, professional and representative bodies to develop professional practice and talent development across public services on a cross-sector basis
I hope that these half dozen ideas will chime with Jaki and Rob's personal agendas and more importantly with the wider ambition of CIPFA and its membership.
If I had been able to add a seventh, it would have been to use CIPFA's strong and successful international network to share experience and to import new ideas into the UK. So I have now cheated and turned six into seven - my own version of creative accountancy!
CIPFA has the opportunity to establish (or is it re-establish or re-affirm?) its position as the leading professional body for public finance in terms of policy, practice, analysis and commentary. Never has the need for creative, strategic and wise financial leadership, management and advice been greater across the public sector. CIPFA has to ensure that these are available to the highest standards It cannot afford either for itself or the profession it represents to be perceived as part of the problem rather than the solution.
CIPFA must be ready to challenge its members to up their game. Equally it has to be ready to challenge orthodoxy and to advocate change where that change adds value to communities and more widely.
It has an opportunity to demonstrate that financial professionals make a difference and contribute strategically beyond spread-sheets and accounting standards. CIPFA and its professional members can be both at the forefront of the modernisation of public services and, at the same time, in the frontline defending them from threats and attack. If not they will fail the public sector, public services and the public.
This is the time and opportunity for CIPFA to rise to the challenge or to sink? If not they will fail the public sector and the public.