Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

Neil Sartorio

Neil SartorioNeil was made Lead Partner for Local Public Services at global professional services firm EY in 2016. Over the last 10 years, Neil has established and developed EY’s local public services practice, which brings EY’s professional services capability into the local public sector market. His team covers areas from local government, police and education to social housing, regionalised transport and the third sector.

The majority of Neil’s career has been spent focused on the public sector whilst working for management consultancies. His career began working as an Environmental Economist at the Department for Transport, before moving to become an auditor within the Audit Commission regime while working for PwC. It was whilst at PwC that he gained his CIPFA accountancy qualifications in 2007. He then moved to Deloitte before joining EY. 

Over the past decade, Neil has also become involved with the following three social enterprises as director, founder or chair: Spiral, a youth employability and aspirational training scheme; Soldiers Arts Academy, a theatre-based therapeutic service for veterans; and InHouse Records, a prison-based record label. 

What attracted you to a career involving the public sector, and particularly public finance?

Everybody has a role to play in helping to create a more equal, fair and positive society for all, and it’s always been something I’ve been committed to. From a very young age I saw something very special around the role the public sector and the public sphere has to play in delivering that. For me, it seemed that working in something that is so innately positive and purposeful was attractive in its own right. 

The public finance dimension to that was probably more accidental; it just so happens that it’s a discipline that I’ve learnt over time because I found that if you want to enact human-based change, it is really important to understand how the money side works. Which is where CIPFA has been very useful – the qualification gives you credibility to be able to talk about policy in a detailed financial context. 

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

I was offered CIPFA training as part of a graduate training package with PwC and, for me, this doubled down on my commitment to the public sector. It’s a recognised qualification and an institution that in its own right is good. It provides a badge that’s widely recognised – a professional ‘kitemark’ for practical financial expertise. Your voice carries more credibility because of that. 

It has also equipped me with a set of technical skills that I’ve used to this day. It has helped me become a more effective consultant – it has increased my understanding of the sector and allows me to have more effective conversations with my clients. In addition, CIPFA offers a network of people who are working in an environment with similar values, ethics and principles, and provides a forum to share notes and learn from others. 

What have been the biggest successes or other memorable moments or of your career to date? 

Being offered an equity stake in a ‘top-four’ firm like EY was a standout moment, particularly as it’s something that I would never have expected to achieve or think it could have been a possibility. It’s a proud achievement for me. 

There have been a number of stand-out projects, clients and moments along the way. I’ve worked for some inspiring individuals, particularly at local authority level, who built in their organisations both an ethical way of working and a belief in what you can do - and that has really driven me, particularly in the ability of local government to impact the lives of others. These early experiences include being given responsibility in a senior role at Leicester City Council, and at Oldham and Brent Councils, where I was seconded into transformation roles and given the opportunity to step up well beyond my experience. These opportunities gave me a sense of confidence to lead at quite a young age, but also to have a value system – to believe in other people, be a bit blind to hierarchies, and to look for capability and diversity. 

Some projects have been memorable in a humbling way. In particular, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, we were brought in to help with the humanitarian response, and to work at a grassroots level with a community that was coming to terms with what had happened. It was a profoundly affecting experience. 

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

’Life’s too short – be yourself.’. You have to be aware of what’s important, and you don’t have to conform to norms – particularly in a working paradigm. 

What advice would you give to people who are beginning their career in public finance? 

I would probably repeat the advice above. So many people start their careers looking for what they want to achieve quite far down the line, and making decisions now that they think will help them get there. But quite often the decisions they make now for that faraway goal may not actually really be that fulfilling for them in the here and now – and may not ultimately turn out to be what they really want. 

So, if you are starting out and have belief in public finance, try to focus at least for the majority of the time on doing the things you want to do or that interest you. Experiment with putting your true self into your work. There is nothing more intoxicating in your personal or professional life than authenticity, and seeing people putting their real energy into something they believe in. Because you’ll find that people will drift towards you that see that authenticity, passion and drive, and they will support you. 

And the best thing about that approach is that even if it doesn’t get you to this ‘promised land’ that you thought you were destined for, you will probably have a lot more enjoyment and belief in yourself – and a lot more satisfaction and fulfilment.