Recruiting and retaining the best financial minds is about more than just offering the right salary. NHS organisations need to get the word out about their unique selling points if they are to compete for the best candidates, argues Nick Hague

A National Audit Office report published earlier this year claimed that some civil servants are "unable to manage their budgets effectively" and pointed out that not a single permanent secretary has a professional financial qualification. Considering how important financial talent is to the public sector, these findings are worrying.

As the sector faces pressure to reduce budgets while adding value, skills such as strategy planning, business modelling and analysis are key, as is competing with the private sector for the best candidates. But how can the public sector compete against City institutions with deep pockets, particularly when there is an accepted shortage of technical financial skills throughout the public and private sectors?

Part of the problem may be that some public sector recruitment procedures have been carefully refined over many years to meet the needs of the recruiting organisation, not the candidate. This means it is essentially a buying process that often makes little attempt to sell positions to potential employees.

But competing with the private sector need not be about continued upward pressure on salary levels. The health sector has other pulling power, such as the fact that it is not a profit-making machine but cares about its cause and its employees.

Rewarding roles

Nic Greenfield is a qualified accountant and director of workforce policy on pay, pensions and training for the Department of Health. He says: "Some accountants are driven by the need to generate profit, but those of us who work for the public sector are generally driven by the opportunity to make a real difference to the services we provide to the general public. It can be highly rewarding."

Strong financial management underpins many of the targets and aims of the NHS. Consequently, opportunities for career development are immense. It is essential to highlight this to candidates, who may still see the public sector as being set in its ways.

Mr Greenfield says: "Jobs are varied. Some are in the financial discipline but there are many others that use skills such as performance management, business planning and project management - you don't have to stay in your professional discipline. You can do as I have done and undertake a mix of specialist and general management jobs."

Variety and challenge are two of the words we hear most on accountants' wish lists, and so highlighting these aspects is crucial. Claire Roberts is assistant director of finance at Leeds Teaching Hospitals trust. She says: "I think finance functions in the NHS have a huge part to play and not just in terms of the mainstream financial reporting. For instance, we place a lot of emphasis on being integrated in day-to-day operational activities. The finance managers who report to me are part of multi-disciplinary teams on the hospital floor. So they will be part of all kinds of debates about waiting lists, business planning, target setting and achieving as well as dealing with issues surrounding capacity."

Range of benefits

While salary levels will be an obvious consideration for potential employees, it is also important to highlight other benefits - particularly those that may not be available in the private sector, such as final salary pension schemes, flexible working arrangements, childcare and carer support and a greater emphasis on work-life balance. Job specifications should focus not just on duties but on challenges and career development potential.

Before interviewing, employers should find out as much as possible about the candidate to ascertain what their motivations are. Is it more money? Or is it one of the other major career change motivators, such as:

  • location - nearer to home, less travel;
  • reputation - how you are perceived as an employer;
  • stability - how long established is the organisation;
  • flexibility - work-life balance issues;
  • ethics - whether the company is a good corporate citizen;
  • development - training, opportunities to learn;
  • challenge - new role, more responsibility;
  • benefits - canteen, gym, dress down policy, car, crèche;
  • team - similar outlook, diverse workforce;
  • technology - more up-to-date systems, exposure to better technology.

There is little doubt that the NHS is a vibrant, cutting-edge employer - few other organisations generate such passion or so many column inches. Communicating that to potential employees needs to be a major priority.

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