Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

Ebony Hughes CPFA

Ebony HughesEbony Hughes is a director at Impower Consulting, which is dedicated to local public services. 

Her responsibilities include taking the lead on financial strategy work with local government, maintaining relationships with directors of resources and financial directors. Ebony has worked at IMPOWER for nearly a decade, having previously been with PwC for six and a half years, where she undertook her CIPFA training as part of PwC’s graduate scheme. She became CIPFA qualified in 2007.

What led you to become a CIPFA member?

When I finished my Masters degree and was looking for the right graduate scheme, I was really keen to do something in the public or not-for-profit sector. I was attracted to the PwC graduate scheme because it had a really good reputation and there was also a dedicated public sector focus in terms of assurance and business advisory services. If I am honest, I didn’t fully realise I was going to train to become an accountant, but I did like the idea of getting a qualification and a skills basis to help me in an advisory role in the public sector. I could choose between doing a qualification with another accounting body or a CIPFA qualification, and to me CIPFA sounded a lot more interesting and more aligned with the reasons why I was applying to do the job I wanted to do.

When did you first become attracted to a career in public finance?

I always thought I wanted to work in international development, and it was only when I started working with local government clients that I realised how interesting and exciting the sector could be - and now I’m a total local government geek! I had no idea what actually went on in local government until I started my career. I think that the sector could do more to raise the profile of the exciting and impactful work that it does. Working with local government provides an opportunity that really makes a difference and achieve a positive impact for people from all walks of life. If you turn on the news in the morning, there’s always something happening in the public sector that's impacting people's lives, what the nation is talking about and what’s making headlines. 

What have been the highlights/biggest successes of your career to date?

I've done some work that I’ve really enjoyed in terms of children's services, reframing how it is delivered to strengthen early intervention and prevention to support the improvement of outcomes for local families. Outside of the day job, I was also a trustee for five years at a children's charity in Caldecott that provided residential and foster care to children. I really enjoyed the opportunity to bring a lot of the skills from my professional financial background as well as an understanding of children's services and commissioning. It was a highlight because I felt like I had supported them to shift their focus to the outcomes they were achieving; taking a value for money approach rather than a perspective where minimising cost is the main factor.

Working with clients, it's been great to see the journey people take - from initially seeing something as a challenge or a roadblock through to creating a vision, energising people around a goal and working with them to get to a point where that is delivered. That's a consistent theme from my work over the past decade, and it's rewarding every time. Facilitating a programme of change and being able to step away knowing that the outcomes will be delivered is a great feeling of success.

What have been the greatest challenges?

Right now, it’s a fascinating time to be working in local government. There's so much positivity about the opportunities for reform in order to bounce forward better and stronger, but it’s going to need a different approach and mind-set than what we've been using before. We need to think of our role as local system influencers which enables the wider local recovery and what it will mean for our communities. However, doing all of this against an alarming financial impact for local authorities is unlike anything we've ever seen before. It's exciting, but very daunting at the same time. 

The variety of the public sector is one of its strengths, but it also makes it ten times harder. You have to think of it as a business, in terms of generating income, whilst also thinking about how you will respond to the needs of the community and support others through the recovery. It's a really challenging time with lots of moving parts, but it’s allowing us to facilitate different ways of working together.

Aside from the current crisis, something I’ve consistently worked on is brokering the relationship between finance as an enabling function and the services they're supporting. Services need to not narrow-frame the benefits they can get from working closely with finance colleagues, and these colleagues also need to make sure they are actively sharing their insight and intelligence to help and support services make decisions. 

How has being a CIPFA member supported you in your career?

The whole process of going through the CIPFA training gave me such a good grounding in terms of not only financial accounting, but also leadership and management, and a broader understanding of what it’s like to lead and manage in an organisation. It's enabled me to have a network of people I can reach out to, which as I’ve progressed in my career has been really useful. It's also been great to get information about what’s going on, and I’ve used it recently more than ever to help me find out what the sector's take is on the issues surrounding the current pandemic. CIPFA events such as the annual conference is also great to bring together colleagues from across the sector to maintain that network. That's really valuable to me. 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve given, or been given?

One of my director colleagues who used to be my performance manager was a great coach to me. He told me that it’s important to know that you don't need to know everything. Having that permission to not feel like you need to know everything is quite liberating. It reduces the pressure you may put on yourself, and it makes you more open and receptive to listening which is really valuable. It allows you to change the mind-set with which you enter a conversation, because you're not focused on proving you're the expert.

What advice would you give to people beginning a career in public finance?

Really value the skills you're learning at the start, because they will pay dividends for many years to come, even if you don’t feel like that at the time. Don't underestimate the value of what you're learning. I would also say to really listen to all the conversations that are happening around you. Gain the intelligence from the people you work with, have empathy with them to understand how they're working. The more you can demonstrate that appreciation, the more credibility you have when you're supporting, challenging or working with them.

What book/film/podcast would you recommend to someone working in public finance?

Nothing related to public finance! I'd recommend having something that's a complete escape, because it would be far too stressful to be thinking about public finance all the time! As pure escapism, I've been watching New Amsterdam on Amazon Prime which is based in a public hospital in New York and there are always financial and budgeting challenges which they always seem to find a way to overcome. I don’t agree with their stereotypical portrayal of finance staff!

What would you say to somebody thinking of becoming a CIPFA member?

Do it, of course! I'd also encourage them to appreciate not just the grounding when it comes to public finance, but also the broader skills, knowledge, access to a fantastic network and the feeling of identity and belonging the membership gives you. You are part of a community as a result, which is a really nice thing to have - not just to fall back on, but draw upon as you progress.