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Accountant (public finance): job description

Accountant (public finance): job description

Public finance accountants are employed by public sector organisations, where they undertake a wide range of practical and advisory financial services.
There is strong competition for training contracts, so previous relevant experience and research is extremely beneficial.

What does a public finance accountant do? Typical employers | Qualifications and training | Key skills

Public finance accountants ensure the public sector budget is spent appropriately. Their work entails:

  • preparing accounts and budget information
  • developing and managing financial systems
  • advising on, developing and managing financial policies
  • preparing reports, business plans, commentaries and financial statements
  • controlling income and expenditure
  • liaising with managerial staff, colleagues and clients
  • undertaking financial administration
  • auditing accounts.

Work tends to be office based, with working hours that may extend beyond the regular nine to five, especially at peak times such as at the end of the financial year.

Typical employers of public finance accountants

  • Utility companies
  • The NHS
  • Local authorities
  • Central government
  • Housing authorities
  • Educational institutions
  • Industrial organisations
  • Charities

After qualification, flexible working options such as working from home and job sharing may be available. As with other 'chartered' and accounting professions, the skills and expertise indicated by this status carry wide prestige and recognition.

Vacancies are advertised by careers services and recruitment agencies, in national newspapers and specialist publications such as TARGETjobs Finance and Accountancy Age. There is strong competition for training contracts, so previous relevant experience and research is extremely beneficial. CIPFA (the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) produces a quarterly list of training vacancies, which is available via its website or in printed format.

Qualifications and training required

There are routes into a career in public finance accountancy for both university graduates and school leavers. The minimum academic qualifications are five GCSEs (grades A* - C, including maths and English) and two A levels (A - C). If you’re a graduate who has studied an accounting, finance or business-related subject, you may be exempted from some exams. AAT graduates may take a two-year qualification course, while a nine-month fast track course may be available to those having completed part or all of a chartered accountancy qualification with major accounting bodies such as ACCA, ICAEW and CIMA.

School leavers are accepted with either the minimum GCSEs/A Levels, or an NVQ/SVQ Level 3. For more information about school leaver routes, see the finance sector of TARGETcareers, our website aimed at school leavers.

Qualification as a chartered public finance accountant often takes three years or more, during which time trainees work towards the CIPFA professional qualification. This involves studying for exams while working full time, and can be demanding. However, the qualification is modular, and students may manage their own progression by choosing the order and number of papers for which they study.

There are three progressive levels of study: Certificate, Diploma and the final Strategic level. At each level, trainees may apply for membership of CIPFA appropriate to their degree of expertise; although this is not compulsory, it could aid professional recognition and career progression.

Upon qualification, students are invited to apply for CIPFA membership, allowing them to use designatory letters highlighting their expertise. This requires a minimum of 200 days' professional work, and membership is thereafter maintained by completing 120 hours of continuing professional development (CPD) over a three year period.

Many employers offer paid study leave, and a considerable amount of private study is necessary in addition to full-time employment. CIPFA provide interactive online study guides, which are also available offline in pdf format, and many students choose to attend college courses in addition to private study. Once qualified, career progression is often swift. Although specialised in the modern public services environment, graduates are equally able to move into the private sector.

Key skills for chartered public finance accountants

Employers look for graduates with the following skills:

  • good IT skills
  • problem-solving and analytical ability
  • mathematical skills
  • excellent commercial sense
  • attention to detail and a methodical approach
  • interpersonal and communication skills
  • self-motivation
  • the ability to work as part of a team
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