Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

Sophie Medwell

Sophie Medwell is an Auditor for the Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia, Canada. Having relocated from the UK to Canada in 2018, Sophie joined the Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia January 2020, and is currently based in Vancouver.

Sophie began her career at Grant Thornton UK LLP in Bristol in 2014, joining the firm’s public  sector audit team, and helped provide audit and accountancy services to local government and NHS bodies in South West England and Wales. Whilst with Grant Thornton, she studied for her CIPFA qualifications, completing them in 2017. 

In 2018, Sophie embarked on a one-year secondment as a Senior Accountant at Grant Thornton in Vancouver – and liked her new location so much, she decided to stay. Her decision to move to a position in the Office of Auditor General reflected her desire to be involved again in a public sector-focused role.

What led you to become a CIPFA member/qualify with CIPFA?

Going into my first public sector audit role at Grant Thornton, it seemed to me that CIPFA was clearly the most relevant of the accounting qualifications available. I thought it would really enable me to understand my clients and the challenges they face, including the complexities of their accounting and how they operate, and, as a result, appreciate the elements they need to consider in their operations.

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

Since I was a child, when I visited the United Nations in New York, I always wanted to pursue a career that would have a positive impact on society. I originally thought that I was going to do that through law – that I was going to be a human rights lawyer. I took a law degree at university, but I realised that I hated it, so accounting seemed like the next logical step, utilising a similar skill set with a similar structure.

When Grant Thornton offered me a position in public sector audit, that seemed like a great way for me to achieve that goal of contributing positively to society. It was that public sector focus on service rather than profit that attracted me, thinking about the whole impact that a financial decision has rather than just the monetary impact. Also, the responsibility to safeguard public money and how we deliver that in an ethical way.

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

One thing that makes CIPFA stand out from other accountancy qualifications is that it focuses on making you a well-rounded accountant rather than someone who can just deal with the numbers. We learn about decision-making, what makes a good leader, and about how to manage culture and how much that impacts an organisation. 
The CIPFA qualification definitely makes me stand out in Canada and identifies me as someone who has chosen to specialise in the public sector. CIPFA is the only qualification in the world that offers that opportunity.

My involvement with the CIPFA Student Network taught me so many skills, too. I was chairing meetings, speaking with people who were much more experienced than me, which could have been very intimidating, but I was able to create great working relationships with them, and some of them have served as mentors for me in my career. 
Because of that involvement, CIPFA has invited me to be involved in some really exciting projects. Earlier this year, I was able to speak at the International Federation of Accountants – I sat on a panel discussing sustainability and the role of the accountants in delivering sustainable goals.

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

Rob Whiteman, CIPFA’s CEO, speaks at the CIPFA student conference every year. A piece of advice that he l brings up is that it’s always better to make the right and ethical decision. It’s better to make an ethical decision and potentially lose your job than make an unethical decision and keep the job. Because making unethical decisions will keep following you, whereas if people know that you’ve made an ethical decision they’ll want to hire you – and you’ll feel better as a person.

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

If you have the passion to give back to your community and the interest to learn more about how the public sector works, this is an excellent career to go into. It has been a very rewarding career for me so far - it’s given me great opportunities, and the people I’ve met have been so passionate about what they do.

I know that finance is often seen as back-office and kind of ‘just there’, but public finance is so important to making sure that public services are delivered. That’s definitely very rewarding.