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The CFO perspective on public service culture

Key points:

  • A finance professional in 2019 must also be a ‘people person’
  • With more rich data at their fingertips, finance officials can provide insight to enable more informed decisions

It’s been a long time coming for public sector chief finance officers to get a permanent seat in the executive inner-circle. From that new vantage point, the finance function is being transformed from historian and compliance cop, to problem solver and enabler.

Chief executives and auditors general have been calling on government’s finance officials to stop being spreadsheet keepers stuck in their silos, and pick up the mantle of change strategist with deep insights across all the business areas of public sector organisations.

While, senior finance executives working in government report being treated less like finance professionals who choose to work in government, and more like public servants who happen to have a particular qualification — a common concern among engineers and lawyers in the public sector too.

It’s against this backdrop of evolving roles and expectations that an increasing number of CFOs, particularly in service delivery organisations, are helping transform public service culture in their organisation. One of these CFOs is the Australian Taxation Office’s Frances Cawthra (pictured above), seven years in the role with a 520-strong workforce under her direction, but only recently been made a permanent member of the ATO Executive group.

“I expect my finance professionals to be able to join the dots across the cosmos of the ATO, not just count them,” Cawthra told a financial efficency conference in Brisbane this week.

While you can teach the fundamentals — which need to be done “brilliantly 100 percent of the time,” Cawthra adds — the changes she’s looking for can’t be found in a textbook. She emphasises capabilities and attributes like:

  • keeping an open mind and being open to trying new things;
  • raising issues and challenging the way things get done;
  • empowering and helping others to overcome challenges and solve problems;
  • showing that while ‘X’ is not possible we can get the same outcome through ‘Y’;
  • providing useful and tailored insights that non-financially focused stakeholders can understand; and
  • using the data they gather to enable people to make more informed decisions.

In turn, Cawthra seeks change for ATO’s internal clients too:

  • spend less time and effort on finance matters;
  • have options for self-service as well as having a contact they can speak to if required;
  • have certainty about financial matters and be able to trust our advice;
  • receive tailored communication in plain English; and
  • have streamlined dealings with us that are unambiguous.

“Put simply, I want my people meet with and talk to their internal clients and colleagues in other agencies,” Cawthra says. “They need to get invited to meetings from the inception – not as an after-thought – and prove their ‘value add’. This can be a difficult, even uncomfortable concept for people. But it’s been working well so far and paying dividends.”

From bad cop to good cop

The emphasis on being more responsive to clients’ or stakeholders’ needs is been felt across the public sector. For those who have made public services their calling, there won’t be any surprise in this week’s Newspoll finding that service delivery tops the public’s priority for government spending. But the public isn’t quite as keen on paying more taxes towards those services, and efficiency dividends serve to keep them lean and efficient.

In such an environment, an agency’s finance officers can be seen as the compliance police. Can finance officers go from bad cop to good cop? Yes, says Cawthra: “We need to have courage, influence and communicate well. We get to know our business partners and share our points of view. It’s about networking and knowing how to start the conversation.”

Making the shift achievable

As finance role goes from a technical function — which is likely to be automated — to one of strategist, integrity advisor and relationship builder, Cawthra is preparing by diversifying her workforce, including recruiting broadly, from different sectors and criteria — “we shouldn’t overlook people with experience in change management and large people leadership” — and encouraging people swaps between the finance and business sides of the organisation.

Cawthra is leading regular conversations about the challenges, including making sure her people understand that it isn’t just going away.

“You can put all of the learning and development in place, but without context and buy-in, without the open and continuous conversations, you end up with a different type of technical expert but no real change.

“A level of intellectual curiosity is needed to dig deeper into issues where the finance function can help find a solution. We need the traditional financial skillsets – that’s a given. But a finance professional in 2019 must also be a ‘people person’ and engage well with our stakeholders; have conversations and get real and actionable insights. To be able to gather data, create information and provide insights that underpin strong decision making.’

READ MORE: Being an effective CFO in the public sector

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.