Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

Humphrey Thompson, finance graduate, Southwark Council

Humphrey Thompson

Humphrey currently works in children and families finance at the London Borough of Southwark, having previously worked in schools finance for a number of months.

After studying music at university, Humphrey did a two-year Masters in classical opera, but then decided against full-time singing in favour of working in public finance.

When did you first become attracted to the public sector, and particularly public sector finance?

My sister works in central government, and I think it's part of my family culture to want to do something that matters, something that's worthwhile. Having a sister who's always talking about her work builds up an excitement for the kind of work you do in public sector organisations, and seeing results out there in the real world. Working in a council you can really see new buildings going up and new policies in action, and you can feel part of that. A lot of my family have ended up working in education in some way or other, so there's a similarity there about working in something that's contributing to a big section of society.

What do you enjoy most about working in local government?

I think being part of an organisation that does everything. Before I started in local government I couldn't tell you much of what a council did, such as working with schools or social housing projects. You have access to people who do everything that it's possible to do – in Southwark we have social workers, people who know about schools, housing or the environment, people who manage our investment fund and pensions, people who do risk assessments. Whatever you end up being interested in you can find a way to do it or people who know how to do it. There's a lot of experience and a lot of commitment to all those different things.

Southwark's interesting because if you start at London Bridge and keep walking through Bermondsey, quite soon every single house you see along the river has got a Southwark Council plaque – I think we're one of the biggest landlords in the UK. You see all this evidence of what the council does and it really hits home.

What have been the highlights or biggest successes of your career to date? Are there any stand-out, pivotal moments?

Probably the first report I did when working in schools finance. It's a tough time for schools and has been for a while as changing demographics in densely populated areas of London have had an impact on pupil numbers and therefore funding. I did a big report on schools' revenue positions, and it was the first time my figures and analysis were part of a process that was going to mean something. It goes back to why I wanted to work in the public sector – it makes you feel like what you're doing is worthwhile and important. Also I like graphs and trying to present financial information as clearly as possible, so it was interesting on that front too.

How has being a CIPFA student member supported you in your current role?

First of all, the studying is amazing in terms of having such a seamless online, supportive learning experience. It sounds simple but the chat function really helps you to be aware of the other people in the virtual room with you.

I recently went to my first CIPFA Student Network social, which was amazing after COVID to meet people in a safe way and talk to others who are in the same boat. It sounds like there is a really supportive network, which will be even more useful as soon as COVID restrictions are fully lifted.

Being in the job I'm in, all around you there are CIPFA people. It is sort of a family, in that if someone is CIPFA qualified, you know that they have similar aims and values to you in terms of working in the public sector. So I think the way it builds community is really good, as I found when I went to the recent CIPFA annual conference.

Why did you choose a CIPFA accounting qualification?

CIPFA is different to the private sector, as there is a greater emphasis on building expertise on a broader range of topics over a few years. I think a large part of why I was attracted to it was that it's more of a streamlined sector with a large community of people. Even when you don't know as much about it you feel that you get the whole gamut with CIPFA.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing public finance professionals of the future?

On a COVID level – without being in the office, sharing expertise, all those quick questions that you just need to ask when you're a young CIPFA trainee – it's that much harder when you need to call somebody to ask them. Obviously people are lovely and accommodating and welcoming, but it's easier now that my fellow Southwark trainees have started coming into the office and it's much quicker to share information.

For public finance, a lot of areas have significant cost pressures, and developing expertise quickly is quite challenging. For a lot of management accounting roles there's a huge service such as education, which I've just been in to get to grips with. It took me ages to learn about all the grants, and your knowledge of that really does matter to be a good accountant in those areas. There's a duty to be a good steward of public finances and because of the nature of the public sector you need to be an expert as soon as you can.

What is your advice to people considering a CIPFA accounting qualification?

As someone who came from a completely different field, the way I read the news and generally interpret the world now gives me a whole other level of perspective about what's going on. The qualification makes me more aware of what is and isn't reported in the media and is an absolutely brilliant tool for life, knowing about the world of finance and business that's behind closed doors.

I originally went into public finance thinking I would eventually take those skills to head up finance in an arts organisation, but that's since changed. Doing a professional qualification opens lots of doors, even if you don't end up going through all of them. With CIPFA you get something that's really tailored, something that's public-facing, and that's really valuable.

Also, don't be scared about exams – everyone gets through them!

What book, film or podcast would you recommend to anyone working in public finance?

There's a podcast called Planet Money – it does lots of short finance explainers. It helps you keep up to date with what’s happening with things like PPE and big companies during COVID, or more basic stuff like how pensions work.

A book I read when I first started studying is The Money Machine. For any monetary term that you come across, open that book and it'll have a great explanation.