Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

Jamie Shah, Assistant Finance Manager for Early Years, Schools and Children's Capital, Westminster City Council

Jamie ShahJamie Shah has been working for Westminster City Council (WCC) since joining the London authority as a Graduate Finance Trainee in 2015 via the Finance the Future local government training scheme. He is currently Assistant Finance Manager for Early Years, Schools and Children's Capital, working for WCC and Royal Brough of Kensington and Chelsea’s (RBKC) Bi-Borough Children and Family Services.

As part of his three year training programme, Jamie gained valuable experience working in a number of different areas of WCC in a finance capacity, from waste and parks, corporate finance, to internal audit and planning to name a few. Towards the end of the scheme, Jamie successfully applied for a finance officer role in the Bi-Borough Children's Services, where he was looking after the early years funding for schools and Private, Voluntary and Independent Sector (PVIs) across both boroughs. Soon his responsibilities expanded to include capital programme within the children's services portfolio, with an investment value at the time of £70m. 

In November 2019 Jamie stepped up to his current role as Assistant Finance Manager, adding part of the schools finance to his remit, and is part of the team helping around 70 schools with their financial management and consolidation. He began his CIPFA training as part of the graduate training scheme. He has now completed his examinations and is expecting to fully qualify in summer 2021.

What do you enjoy about working in local government?

I really like the fact that you're quite close to the action. I have calls with schools, school bursars and school finance managers and it's great that you're able to interact with them and form relationships. You can see the sort of decisions that are being made in local government and the effect they have in the real world. That's something that you don't really get in central government – in local government, the context is just so wide and broad that you can see the impact of it. And you can feel that you’re making a difference.

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

When I was at the University of Portsmouth, where I studied for a BSc in Pharmacology, I was quite involved in several societies. I was president of one of them, and a large aspect of that was financial management. We did a lot of charity work, and through that experience, I just knew that I wanted to work in the public sector. I wasn't sure in what sort of capacity, though – finance or something more operational.

My mum was a big influence as well. She came across the Finance the Future scheme, which the CIPFA qualification was part of, and suggested I apply for that route into the public sector. I was good with numbers and with money, and with my experience and sense of duty it just seemed a natural fit.

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

Westminster City Council has its own internal staff awards every year, and in 2017 I was nominated for Young Person of the Year and was runner up. Then, in 2019, one of my colleagues nominated me for Staff Choice of the Year at the awards, and I won, which was really surprising and pleasing for me.

In a totally different and humbling context, in 2017 I was involved with the local authority emergency response team after the Grenfell Tower tragedy. I was part of a small team that was set up in a pizzeria in Portobello Road, meeting survivors and handing out money to them as part of the initial relief effort. That was a highlight for me – trying to help the residents and interacting with them to provide some immediate financial support, whilst knowing that I was making a difference.

On a professional level the other highlight, and one I'm particularly proud of, is being part of the WCC team that worked on closing the year-end accounts and publishing them within five days of the financial year end. For about two or three years previous to that, we were closing in one month, then two weeks, so five days was quite an incredible feat.

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

Being a student member, you receive a lot of support from the CIPFA Student Support team. They have always been so helpful any time I've had a query. The tutors themselves are really good – they have a huge depth of knowledge, they’re approachable, friendly, and they're always contactable when you're doing the course. Being a student has also allowed me to ask questions you would be expected to know if you were qualified.

In the workplace, being a student or graduate trainee, there was always a great emphasis on training and developing our skills. I would work closely with my managers to understand their role and the full context they were operating in. They had a wealth of knowledge and experience relating to that area and were always willing to answer my questions and treat me like an adult.

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

There are quite a lot! Most people would recognise funding pressure as a major challenge, and I would agree – local government certainly feels the brunt of this.

The lack of BAME leadership in local government – not just in finance but across local government – is also an issue. You don't get to see many BAME individuals in senior positions, and this can have an effect or impact the services provided to residents. I believe that having a diverse range of staff would better serve the interests of the diverse nature of the residents or customers we serve. It will definitely be important to have more BAME people in senior leadership roles now and in the future.

Another challenge is disruptive technology, such as artificial intelligence and automation, which will affect how we work as a profession – we have to be prepared for the changes these technologies will bring.

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

It's a rewarding career, and it can open a lot of doors. Having the CIPFA qualification gives you so many options, and you can use it as a steppingstone. Having such a good grounding in finance enables you to move into different areas. 

The CIPFA programme is challenging so you have to be prepared for times when it's going to be quite difficult. The number one thing is to be organised with your time and your work. The time management skills you learn while you're studying and working become invaluable when you are in a substantive post and have conflicting priorities. Develop your skills, technical and soft, as much as you can – and don't be afraid to ask questions.