Finding a Way


By Stephanie Donaldson

CIPFA Northwest Society Council held their first virtual AGM on Friday 1 May, after our planned AGM and CPD event in Liverpool Town Hall was cancelled in late March, due to the pandemic. Huge thanks to all our members who dialled in and enabled us to proceed with the event and congratulations to our elected and re-elected members and co-opted members.

In preparation for my Presidential Address, I revisited my first presentation at the AGM last year, having just taken over the role from Mike Thomas.

In it I reflected on how much things had changed during the two years of Mike's regional presidency, the challenges that public sector finance professionals were facing and the uncertainty which lay ahead as the UK prepared to leave the European Union.

As I sat on Friday, speaking to our members from my dining room table via my laptop and presenting at our very first virtual AGM, I realised that the challenges and uncertainty that we thought we had ahead of us were molehills, compared to the mountains that we are navigating now.

There is barely an aspect of our lives which has not been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of this event, which is not just in the UK but across the world, will be as diverse as it is long. We hear that we are now passed the peak, and wait to understand what the road to recovery will look like: how we will get back to normal, or perhaps more realistically find a "new normal," and what that means for us, our communities, our children and our future.

Public services were already stretched and challenged before the pandemic. Despite this we have seen what Rob Whiteman described earlier this week as a "Herculean" task, as the public sector swiftly stepped up to take on this brutal adversary. From the courage and tenacity of frontline NHS workers and those in social care, to schools providing a setting for the children of key workers, to local authorities supporting the vulnerable and at-risk whilst maintaining essential services, to the setting up and administration of new schemes such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the list really does go on and on. Every Thursday evening when we join together at 8pm to acknowledge the hard work done by key workers, we find ourselves recognising more and more what really is meant by "key". What really, really matters.

As Rob pointed out in Public Finance at the end of April, as the crisis continues, new ways of funding the sector will need to be found if services are to continue to be delivered. We may have reached the peak but it is certainly not downhill all the way from here and I think we all know that there will be more mountains to climb. It's not just the public sector, of course – it remains to be seen how many business and organisations will survive or fully recover from this, and the resulting implications on our economy. Whilst there is much speculation it is still not fully known, and may not be for some time.

It is concerning, too, to consider some of the wider so-called secondary impacts of the current situation – on safeguarding, domestic violence, children's education, delays in the treatment of non-COVID related health conditions, the impact on the third sector and the short, medium and longer term impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

Yet as public finance professionals, it is the public services which we are responsible for that are the immediate challenge on our desks (or kitchen table). Or, as one colleague admitted to me yesterday – their ironing board. Now that's innovation if ever I have seen it!

It's important that we continue to maintain our professional network and support each other through this. Regretfully our AGM was more about getting through the necessary business than anything else, but it's important that we look to how we can best support each other through this and the ways we can do this. Our events programme (as we knew it) may be on hold, but we need to think about how we can be innovative, creative and collaborative in different ways. During the year we worked hard to forge better links cross-sector across the professional sector, and we were really starting to see the fruits of this. Whilst it's disappointing that some of our events have been postponed – most notably our joint event with CIMA and a planned event with the Institute of Internal Auditors – we need to keep this momentum going, and I can assure you that we're doing our best!

Social distancing doesn't mean we need to distance ourselves from our professional support networks, of which this is one. In many ways, it is even more important that we work at this and as members I am appealing to all of you to help us maintain this. Please let us know of any ideas you have regarding how we can better facilitate this, how to utilise available technology, or how you as an individual can help and support us.

As we start to think about taking tentative steps to our new normal, we should be trying to take some time to consider what might be worth hanging onto. Sitting every day on your laptop propped up on an ironing board is certainly not anyone's idea of an ideal working environment, but there are positives to take away from this. We are probably all a bit more tech-savvy than we were before, or at least we have probably all started using technology to facilitate meetings (for example) in ways that we did not before, even if it was available for us to use. Is it really okay to say that working from home is not feasible, at least some of the time, for many jobs where perhaps that was the perception previously? Is that commute to the office every day really necessary now? Have we become more aware of each other's wellbeing? Of each other's (and our own) work/life balance?

I think most of us would probably say yes.

Gareth Davies (Comptroller and Auditor General at the NAO) recognised all the public servants behind the scenes at national and local level in his blog recently, whom he said are "keeping our country going." As the organisation responsible for scrutinising so many of these public bodies, he said that the NAO have a "privileged insight into how vital they are to everyone's lives every day – and even more so at a time like this."

He pointed out that MPs, and the public that they represent, will expect the NAO to carry out a substantial programme of work on the COVID-19 response so we can learn for the future. This will include looking at government spending on the direct health response as well as the wider emergency response, and will also look at the spending on the measures to protect businesses and individuals from the economic impact.

It will clearly take time to consider the full breadth of this and to report it. It was also noted that, more importantly, it will take time for the public sector to be in a place where it can learn from our findings. He said "our challenge is accountability and provide insight at the most suitable time. We must not get in the way of public servants working hard to save lives, but we must also ensure that our reporting is sufficiently prompt to support proper accountability for public money."

It's early days for this kind of reflection, but we should prepare for it. Questions will be asked, and it is right that they are. From business continuity and emergency response arrangements, to data quality and reporting, from procurement and managing the supply chain, to maintaining internal control and security arrangements. Perhaps by the time we are holding our March 2020 AGM we will better understand how public money has been used in addressing this crisis, which will also help to make sure that appropriate lessons are learned for the future. Perhaps by then we will be starting to see more mountains behind us than ahead of us, and maybe, just maybe, we will be settling into a new normal. I hope so, and I look forward to seeing you there.

Thank you so much for your continued support. Take care, look after yourselves and stay safe.