In May 2018, seven counter fraud professionals from the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) and West Lothian council became the first in the country to receive the Scotland Accredited Counter Fraud Specialist (ACFS) qualification
SAAS is the national student funding body for eligible Scottish and EU students doing a higher education course at college or university. An executive agency of the Scottish government, it provides funding to over a quarter of a million students each year and is responsible for a budget of around £900 million annually for tuition fees, loans and bursaries. SAAS's counter fraud team is vital in detecting and identifying fraudulent applications for student support.
Over 20,000 professionals have qualified through the ACFS programme, and it's been offered by CIPFA in England and Wales since 2015. However, there was growing demand for a counter fraud programme from the public sector in Scotland, reflecting the differences in their criminal law and procedure.
Meeting the challenge head on
Fraud is the most common acquisitive crime in the UK, and is increasing year on year. A 2018 report estimated that fraudulent activity costs the UK £110 billion annually, while the government estimates £31 billion to £49 billion of public sector money is lost to fraud and error each year. Providing professionals working in the public sector with the knowledge and complex set of skills to investigate and combat it is, therefore, vital. With public sector budgets tight and organisations under intense pressure to make savings, clamping down on and reducing fraud is one area where this can be achieved.
The UK government has acknowledged the growing importance of counter fraud professionalism. On 9 October 2018, it launched its new Government Counter Fraud Profession (GCFP) for specialists working to fight fraud and economic crime, with the aim of creating a new community of counter fraud specialists across government. Those practitioners need specialist training to meet the needs of the profession.
In 2015 the Scottish government launched a new counter fraud strategy. "SAAS's strategic goals are directly aligned to this," says Graham Philp, Head of Counter Fraud and Recoveries at SAAS. "As we are responsible for administering public funds, we also have a responsibility to protect those resources and to improve the organisation's resilience to fraud. Professional training plays an important part in helping us to achieve this."
A bespoke solution
CIPFA tailored the ACFS course for the Scottish market by ensuring that relevant national legislation, terminology and common law was applied to the course material. SAAS and CIPFA collaborated closely on its development, and reviewing the law and criminal procedure formed part of the discussion at every stage of the course. "CIPFA was very flexible in allowing us to contribute, and our trainer in particular very much welcomed us sharing our knowledge and expertise in this area," says Philp.
The Scottish ACFS course comprises four modules of classroom-based learning over 18 days, taught over three to four months, with an additional eight days of pre-course, self-directed learning and 18 days to complete three course assignments. SAAS enrolled all four of their counter fraud investigators, plus two other managers, on the course..
Philp explains: "A great deal of personal commitment and time was required for the course, spending four weeks out of the office and completing assignments while continuing to manage individual casework. Working through this as a team provided motivation and a sense of camaraderie – with an occasional element of healthy competition!
"It wasn't all just about the hard work, though – the practical activities were good team building exercises, and the training environment allowed for free-flowing discussion. This added benefit continued after the training was complete too. When it came to reviewing our processes, it meant that each team member was involved in decision-making and were able take ownership in re-shaping and implementing new practices."
Pathway to success
After successful completion of the course, SAAS undertook a full review of its operating procedures, adapting and enhancing them where appropriate.
"Our team members have always been committed to the work that we do," says Philp, "but SAAS investing in our professional development and the achievement of the award has given an added sense of enthusiasm to the team. Gaining this award has also raised our profile among partners, and we have received recognition by the wider Scottish government for leading the way as the first Scottish government team to achieve this qualification."
Philp believes CIPFA training and access to its resources are also a valuable long-term investment. "This course consolidated our knowledge and formalised our skills, but it hasn't just been about that immediate gain. In the long term, access to resources, tools and continuous professional development will allow us to maintain this standard and will offer specialist support in building an anti-fraud culture.
"The UK government has recently launched counter fraud as a profession in the civil service ensuring recognition for individuals working in this area of expertise. Gaining this accreditation, which is already aligned to the Cabinet Office counter fraud standards framework, means that we are a step closer to reaching our potential in this area."
Find out more
The CIPFA Accredited Counter Fraud Specialist (ACFS) is focused on developing the counter fraud knowledge and skills required for effective end-to-end management of fraud.