Department of Health (Northern Ireland) Staff Officer Dean Russell shares his thoughts on CIPFA’s first post-pandemic conference in the region.
The future of public sector finance
The CIPFA Northern Ireland branch committee recently reflected on the success of the first in-person Northern Ireland conference in three years, held on 18 October 2022 in the Stormont Hotel, Belfast. The theme of PF Live Northern Ireland 2022 was the future of public sector finance, which allowed us to explore how finance professionals will be vital to delivering for citizens now and in the future.
The timing of the conference meant that we had an opportunity as a public finance community in Northern Ireland to reflect on the many and varied challenges that we’ve faced since we last met in person. Looking back, the speakers recognised how, in different ways, the public sector adapted as it rose to the challenge of delivering services in times of unprecedented change. Looking forward, the speakers also reminded us that such agility that will continue to be needed, and in increasing measure, as the public sector recovers from the pandemic in the context of ongoing fiscal constraints.
William Crawley, a local BBC broadcaster, was excellent as chair of the proceedings, and the keynote address was given by the former Head of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland, Sir David Sterling KCB, who spoke about leading through difficult times and the fact that it is now ten years since Northern Ireland last had an agreed programme for government and a functioning government at the same time.
Writer and broadcaster Paul Gosling spoke about Northern Ireland’s crisis in public finance – in particular, the endemic instability and focus on identity that leads to increased pressure on the public purse and limits the scope for efficiency in the public sector.
After lunch, the recently appointed Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland Dorinnia Carville gave an outline of her priorities for her first year in post. Prominent among them was improving public services through building effective working relationships.
Colum Boyle, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Communities in Northern Ireland, took as his focus the theme of working together and collaboration. He gave examples from his department of effective collaboration with third sector bodies during the pandemic and spoke about the difficult lessons learned through bad collaboration.
The closing speaker was the then Health Minister for Northern Ireland, Robin Swann MLA, who spoke at length and movingly about the many lessons he has learned and that others need to learn from the pandemic. While he reminded us of the achievements of the department and health and social care colleagues under his leadership in delivering a proximity app, real-time dashboard reporting and contact tracing ahead of the rest of the UK, he also recognised that the public sector needs to be better at horizon scanning and showing maximum flexibility in the face of complex and concurrent problems. He finished by paying tribute to the public for getting us through the pandemic as well as we did and reflecting that we have all been changed by the experience.
If you have been to any of CIPFA’s conferences, you will, I’m sure, echo my observation that the day away from your desk (or dining room table) is always time well spent, and it simply flies. Once again, the branch committee and CIPFA’s events team manged to pull off an excellent day of networking and learning from public finance and public sector experts.
I would encourage you to keep an eye on Membership Matters or get in touch with me if you have any suggestions for the next CIPFA Northern Ireland conference, which we hope to hold this October.
Staff Officer (Accountant)