Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

NHS finance careers: make your career count

In the second of a series of CIPFA webinars, leading senior finance professionals at NHS England Claire Gravil and Devasuda Anblagan discuss their careers in the NHS, the training and development necessary to carry out their roles, and why being a finance professional in the healthcare sector is a challenging vocation, but also a rewarding and fulfilling one.

Over the past two years, we’ve never been more aware of the need for the NHS to be fast-changing and flexible, responding to rapidly changing circumstances. In many cases, that was as true of the finance function as with other specialisms within the UK’s healthcare service. NHS finance professionals have had to rise to that challenge and, as well as having the technical qualities needed to ensure sound financial management within the organisation, have also had to be flexible and agile enough to adapt to different challenges and respond extremely quickly to new scenarios.

In this webinar, Claire Gravil, Head of Finance for Direct Commissioning/COVID-19 vaccination programme for NHS England and NHS Improvement North East and Yorkshire region, talks with recent graduate Devasuda Anblagan, Senior Finance Manager at NHS England and NHS Improvement in the East of England, about switching careers in science for finance and what they find uniquely rewarding about working for the NHS.

Claire Gravil (CG): What brought you into the NHS, and how did you get to where you are now?

Devasuda Anblagan (DA): I joined the NHS because I’m passionate about improving the health and quality of life of the patients I serve. Prior to my finance role, I was an MRI physicist researching perinatal development and the aging brain. During my academic career, I saw the need to improve resource allocation models in the NHS and medical research by forecasting future healthcare pressures and taking action to address them now. This motivated me to join the NHS finance management training scheme in September 2017, so that I could better understand the current challenges and the future demand, and therefore influence the strategy development and implementation, and ultimately the interlinked funding allocation in medical research and the NHS.

Within the NHS graduate management training scheme, I had the opportunity to work on different placements, including three different NHS organisations – Cambridge University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust, as well as a system delivery unit of Cambridge and Peterborough STP. I also had the opportunity to work with a consulting firm, PwC, on projects in the ambulance service and at an acute trust.

On completion of my training scheme – around March 2020, just as the pandemic arrived – I joined NHS England and NHS Improvement as a finance manager, before being promoted to my current role. I’ve undertaken various placements in these organisations, giving me a broad range of experience to help me connect different areas of finance together. I’ve also gained insights into partnerships between the NHS local authorities and other organisations that take collective responsibility for managing resources, delivering services based on NHS standards and improving the health of the local population.

That set me up for my current role where I’m responsible for looking after the public health and primary care funding for the eastern region, covering business planning, development and project performance management for the regions with a budget of around £400m.

Claire, I know that you have a similar kind of experience as well…

CG: When I went to university, I wasn’t quite sure where I wanted to go in my career. I did a chemistry degree and then I worked at a chemical plant as a chemist for a couple years, which was very interesting – but it didn’t feel quite right for me.

I love the medical world, particularly the NHS, and wanted to be part of it, so I applied for the NHS finance graduate scheme and was successful. It was hard course, but it was also a brilliant scheme to be on. My first role was in Doncaster & Bassetlaw Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and I absolutely loved it – you feel you are part of something special. For example, when you’re working on business cases to develop funding for something, you can just walk down the corridor and see it implemented. That aspect of the role is one of the fascinating and interesting parts about being an accountant in the NHS, seeing elements to that decision-making process around patients. As a young accountant it really impacted on me – it made me realise it’s not just about the money; it’s about the wider concept.

I then took a break from the NHS for a couple years and went to local government at North East Lincolnshire Council. It was very different, but when it comes to your finance training, it was also familiar, because it’s the same concepts and financial principles; everything was similar. I returned to NHS England as Assistant Head of Finance in primary care finance. The role then migrated into specialised commissioning, and I worked my way up to Head of Finance for specialised commissioning and public health. I’m now working on the COVID-19 vaccination programme as part of a secondment to support the national programme.

The insights you get from working in all the different roles provides so much experience – there are so many opportunities. Your accountancy training sets you up, but the world really is your oyster.

DA: Our career journeys have been similar in some ways, from science to finance via the NHS Graduate Management Training Scheme. I found the orientation part of the scheme really important in understanding how different functions operated and collaborated within the NHS, and how it’s all interrelated. This really helped me to understand the vision, the values, the priorities, as well as the strategies of the organisations I worked at. It helped me understand how different clinical and non-clinical departments collaborated to achieve the organisation’s vision and provided insight into their working relationship with the finance department.

CG: I did something very similar – it’s important, moving into a career in finance or within the NHS, to understand how it all functions. You can do your job well, but you need to ensure you have empathy, compassion and understanding for everybody you work with in the organisation across all parts – the NHS only functions because of everyone in it, whatever their role. The graduate scheme helped me appreciate that. Even now in my role, if I don’t understand something, I’ll go and see the process in action, I’ll walk the floor and talk to the people involved.

Taking the CIPFA qualification was – and still is – an integral part of the NHS graduate scheme. It was challenging to work and study at the same time, but in hindsight, it was one of the best things the scheme did for me. I flourished through CIPFA. I loved the modules, I loved the structure to it, and I loved how it was delivered, as well as the access to different people within CIPFA.

DA: CIPFA gave me a good understanding of public sector accounting and how different public sector bodies work together. The knowledge I gained from CIPFA training has been extremely valuable for the work that I do for financial management and reporting, as well as financial strategy. I still refer to my lecture notes from CIPFA strategy modules alongside the Green Book. When you do CIPFA, you learn that it’s not just about the theory, it’s how you can apply it, and that’s been very beneficial.

CG: So learning from your experience on the course, what advice would you give to CIPFA students now?

DA: The most important advice I’d give is to take time to understand yourself and what is important in your life. Know what the purpose, values and goals are in your life – ask yourself questions about exactly what type of things you want from your work life. Once you get to know yourself and your priorities, you can then shortlist the ideal career for yourself. This way, you are more likely to enjoy and be satisfied with a career that meets all your needs, and it will continue to motivate you to progress further.

Also, I strongly believe that it’s really important to have a network of support for your professional life as well as your personal life. I’ve been mentored by two female chief executives, and it’s been invaluable – it’s shaping my finance career. They’ve challenged me to think outside the box and trust in my ability, and that has helped build my confidence.

Be proactive and identify who can support you in your career and reach out. CIPFA has the buddy scheme – mentoring and coaching – but also look for opportunities to give back when you can in your career.

CG: When you’re a student, you often feel like you’re choosing a career and making decisions that are going to affect the rest of your life, so it can be quite pressured. But that world’s changed a lot now. I’d say to students that although you will make some decisions at the beginning of your career, that doesn’t define you – it doesn’t mean you are going to be ‘stuck’ for the rest of your life. Don’t be afraid to make a decision based on what you want to do now. You’re certainly not pigeonholing yourself into anything.

Career opportunities

Please find more details on CIPFA training courses by visiting our training page, and to aid planning in relation to career pathways and the development needs of those tasked with all aspects of public financial management, see our key competencies for public sector finance professionals.

Meet our guests

Claire Gravil is Head of Finance for the COVID-19 vaccination programme for the North East and Yorkshire region, a very challenging role that she is still heavily working on and enjoying.

Devasuda Anblagan is a Senior Finance Manager at NHS England and NHS Improvement. She is currently in the East of England Direct Commissioning team, where she is responsible for business planning, development and financial performance management for the region’s public health and primary care.

The series

Revisit the first webinar in our NHS finance careers series with Bob Alexander and Tahmid Ahmed.