In praise of accountants

The bean counters have computers now!

In one of my previous local government incarnations we were going through a restructure and the powers that be had made it clear that, as so often, they would do everything in their powers to ‘protect the frontline’. One of my colleagues, only half in jest I believe, suggested that he was going to print some T-shirts for my team with the slogan: ‘back office staff are people too.’

I’m reminded of this frequently in recent times as politicians, managers, tweeters, bloggers and commentators all talk of implementing cuts that won’t affect the ‘frontline’. The hidden message in this language is that the back-office staff don’t really matter and cutting them won’t really make any difference.

Local Government workers, and hopefully blog readers, don’t need me to tell you that this is baloney. For example, there is not a member of staff who is not 100% reliant on the work of their IT department.

Despite this I recently found myself saying something similar about our finance department. I think my words consisted of something like: ‘there are quite a lot of them down there; what do they do exactly?’ I guess in times of cuts everyone looks for a scapegoat.

I was wrong of course. Good local government accountants are indispensible.

In a time of budget cuts it is the accountants who can tell us exactly how much money we have and what effect all the many cuts have on our overall budgets. It is the accountants who ensure that every team and service area is spending within its means and ensure that we don’t overspend the public’s money.

More than this though; it is the accountants in the council who are crucial when looking at new forms of business or service model. If anything, this year will be the year of the accountant.

Individual budgets for adult social care will mean that council adult services don’t have guaranteed budgets for the year. In order to properly plan for these services quite detailed projections are going to be needed. Who’s going to produce those projections? Yes, it’s the accountants.

Eric Pickles is particularly keen on shared services. But a shared service requires two authorities to share costs and often one council to make a charge to another for a service provided. Working out which costs are appropriate to share between the authorities and how the cost of the service will be allocated (based on usage?) is a question for which we are entirely reliant on, yes, our accountants.

Finally, outsourcing services is not as simple as simply comparing one price with another (I used to think it was). The cost and the risk models rely on projections and a deep understanding of the actual costs of services, including costs that maybe we don’t always take into account.

In the past few weeks I have had lots of dealing with accountants and every time they have shown imagination, skill, mental dexterity and a deep understanding of how our council’s budget works. Without them I, and I dare say the rest of my council, would be lost.

All hail to the accountants.

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4 Comments on “In praise of accountants”

  1. jrofficer Says:

    I want one of those t-shirts. If you’re not selling them, perhaps I could run the idea past our Council as a revenue-generating measure, albeit somewhat of an own goal as we’d be spending our salary on clothing sold by our Council to pay our salaries.

    And yes, all hail the accountants. Don’t overlook the complexity of local government financial rules and regulations, with the ring-fencing and having to collect precepts for other authorities and transfer funds every which way until everyone is paid, including the government with the local business rates to be used for…something…somewhere else…

    As well as being able to crunch numbers in new and interesting ways every time a new government comes along, our accountants also have to attend meetings of councillors, many of whom have little or no finance background and then ask completely unexpected questions because they are approaching the figures from a different angle. So the accountants aren’t just bean-counters but interpreters.

    PS I’m not in the finance section.

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