Why work in public sector finance?

Written by: Helen Jones
Published on: 13 Sep 2021

Public sector worker


Any organisation run by the government and funded by tax-payers’ money can be classified as public sector. 

Many ICAEW members work in or with the public sector to deliver public priorities and strong public finances. ICAEW acts in the public interest to support strong financial leadership and better financial management across the public sector – featuring transparency, accountability, governance and ethics – to ensure that public money is spent wisely and that public finances are sustainable. 

Accountants are among the world’s most sought-after professionals. In fact, accounting and finance rank seventh on the list of roles that are hardest to fill globally, according to a survey by recruiter ManpowerGroup. Meanwhile, rapid societal and technological change is transforming both the employment landscape and what individuals expect from jobs, threatening to further exacerbate the talent shortage. 

In many parts of the world, public sector employers are simply unable to pay salaries that compete with those on offer in the private sector. What, then, is the public sector pulling power? Here are the main reasons why you should go after a public sector finance job. 

Unmatched influence 

In the public sector finance professionals have a far-reaching social impact that cannot easily be replicated in the private sector. 

Finance professionals play a crucial role in delivering public services and ensuring that taxpayers’ money is used effectively. They need to have the same analytical and strategic skills as their private-sector peers. 

The right mindset 

It is the mindset, rather than technical expertise, which is probably the principal differentiator between finance professionals in public service and those who work in the private sector. In the private sector, you have the responsibility of helping the corporation to reach its goals and provide shareholders with the maximum return on their investment. In public finance, you have to deal with an entire country’s budget, and you are impacting the lives of many more people. You’re not just looking at shareholders’ returns. 

Another important difference is that public sector accountants often have to accommodate and manage the expectations of a very wide range of stakeholders. This requires an ability to communicate and collaborate effectively. 

Complex challenges 

Today public sector bodies around the world are navigating widespread technological disruption alongside a range of other challenges. These include severe budgetary constraints, extreme weather events arising from climate change, and demographic developments such as ageing populations. As a result, public sector finance professionals may have to deal with problems of far greater complexity and magnitude than those in the private sector. 

It is for this reason that public sector finance professionals need to be innovative. One example of how public sector finance professionals are becoming more innovative is through their use of outcome-based budgeting, by allocating money to the areas of government that achieve the best results and measuring these outcomes to make informed decisions in the future. 

Recruitment and retention 

Using the power of impact to attract people to work in the public sector is one thing; retaining them is another. There is always a risk that talented people will leave a public sector finance role if it doesn’t meet their expectations. The public sector is more likely to attract and retain talent if it offers clear career paths, an excellent working environment and the opportunity to learn and develop new skills. 

In certain jurisdictions, a further consideration is the security of tenure that a career in public finance can offer. This may compensate for lower pay and make it an appealing proposition for some people. 

Ultimately, the kind of people who are really suited to joining – and building their careers in – the public sector will not be motivated by money alone. They will be motivated by the desire to make a positive difference to their communities. 

Be part of the ICAEW Public Sector Community 

For accountants and finance professionals working in or with the public sector or want to follow a career in public sector finance, this Community is the go-to for the key resources and guidance on the issues affecting practitioners like you. With a range of dynamic services, we provide valuable tools, resources and support tailored specifically to your sector. Membership is free and open to everyone, including non-ICAEW members.