Managing COVID-19 in the public sector
CAs working in the public sector have been putting their CA skills to good use throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the face of COVID-19, the public sector is dealing with unprecedented challenges. Significant amounts of public money have been applied to support the health service, local government, businesses, and the wider economy. The Scottish Government spent over £50 billion in 2020/21, a 27% increase over the previous year. This included £8.6 billion of ‘Barnett consequentials’ allocated to support the COVID-19 response.
CAs from the ICAS Public Sector Panel, working in the NHS and local government shared their experiences of managing the challenges of COVID-19 over the last two years in an Ask ICAS webinar. This included crucial decision-making at key points in the pandemic, and how they are drawing on the learning to good effect in the recovery and renewal of public services.
A significant contribution from CAs
Russell Frith ACA (chair of the audit committee at Social Security Scotland) set the scene. He noted that CAs working in the public sector not only keep on top of the finances but also make a significant, wider contribution to the running of large, complex public organisations which provide vital services.
Alan Gray CA, Director of Finance at NHS Grampian, spoke about the immediate challenges at the start of the pandemic as the health service moved quickly to address the emergency. This involved strategic planning and decision-making which had a direct bearing on NHS finances, with a focus on service prioritisation and procurement. The finance team was involved across the business, assessing contingencies for an uncertain future while at the same time dealing with ongoing capital contracts and working with others to set up new lab services and vaccination facilities. Alan explained how, as a finance professional, he has been able to make a difference and a significant contribution during the pandemic and described how core CA values provide a ‘compass and foundation’.
Financial support for key healthcare
Next, Alasdair Pinkerton CA spoke about the challenges of financial support for key primary care health professionals during COVID-19. Alasdair is Associate Director for Contractor Finance at National Services Scotland which makes payments to dentists, ophthalmologists, pharmacists, GPs, and others. Alasdair explained what his organisation faced at the start of the pandemic, and the difficult decisions about how best to support providers and patient care – what to keep going, what to reduce, what to stop and how staff could be redeployed to support other priorities such as track and trace. The response included strategies for payments to health professionals, technical challenges of shifting to remote working, and maintaining systems that deal with a huge volume of transactions including paper-based pharmacy processing.
Lorna Meahan CA, Director of Economy and Resources at Dumfries & Galloway Council, set out the challenges of delivering local government services during the pandemic across a large and varied geographical area. Lorna emphasised the importance of maintaining accountability, transparency, and good governance – fundamental concepts for CAs – to support decision-making and to demonstrate proper stewardship of funding for people and communities. The focus is now on recovery, recognising that the imperative for better use of digital solutions and the focus on local economies during the pandemic provide platforms for further service development and improvement.
Increasing demands on audit
While not at the ‘front-line’ in the same way as Alan, Alasdair and Lorna, CAs working in public audit have also faced increasing demands during the pandemic. Setting aside the practical implications of auditing remotely and to time and quality, auditors have needed to assess new systems and internal controls set up to deliver vital funding to people and businesses. Auditors have also had to deal with a wide range of issues such as non-current asset valuation uncertainty and accounting treatments for COVID-19 related expenditure and supplies. They have worked to support proper disclosures in annual reports and accounts, which not only meet the standards but also provide assurance and support accountability and transparency for how public money was spent and what was achieved. Again, core CA values have served auditors well, providing a firm foundation for dealing with unprecedented situations. CA skills came to the fore, providing knowledge and insight for the management and boards of public bodies to draw on as their organisations worked to maintain high standards of stewardship and governance in the most challenging of circumstances.
CA skills in excellent effect
During questions, there was consensus that maintaining vital public services in the face of the pandemic would go down as the main success, achieved through the commitment and resilience of staff and partnership working. With hindsight, the panel felt there was scope to be better prepared and to have better data to inform which services to pause and to understand the associated implications. Other questions highlighted the need for further improvement in reporting of how the additional funding was used, and assurance that public money is used well.
Overall, the webinar provided fascinating insights into how public services have coped with COVID-19 over an extended period and with a strong sense that the learning will be applied to good effect to improve services. It also confirmed that CA skills are being applied to excellent effect in the public sector, and in areas and activities which might not immediately come to mind – before, during and (in time) after the COVID-19 pandemic.