From charity to the police: reflections on a move between sectors

20 Jun 16

The skills accountants need to flourish in the charitable and public sectors are surprisingly similar. Colleagues thinking of making the move can be confident of success

In March 2015, I bid a fond farewell to my old job of college accountant at Newnham College, University of Cambridge, and stepped straight into a challenging new one: chief finance officer for the Police and Crime Commissioner for Cambridgeshire. I’m responsible for managing a budget of £130m per year, developing and driving forward our financial strategy and putting into place sustainable medium- and long-term financial plans while protecting visible policing in the county.

Newnham College is the largest women’s college in Cambridge, and, because donations form a significant part of its funding, has charitable status. I’ve found that my experiences at Newnham in the charity world have set me up well for life in a new sector. The innate scariness of participating in a national debate on policing and austerity on my fourth day dissipated during the first few minutes of the event with the realisation that – despite being in a totally different arena – the similarities were as numerous as they were striking. Hopefully my experiences will convince anyone thinking of making the move to take the leap between sectors with confidence.

Like local authorities, we too are coming to grips with the ongoing challenges of austerity. In mid-2015, the Home Office was asked by the Treasury to model what a 25% cut and a 40% cut might look like.  Thankfully cuts of this magnitude didn’t materialise in the end, but the chancellor’s headline announcement of ‘no cuts to policing’ in his 2015 Autumn Statement has proved itself to be rather more complicated when subjected to detailed scrutiny. And in the policing sector, we’ve also needed to analyse what the proposals for a changed police funding formula might mean for Cambridgeshire – but in essence it’s splitting up the ever-smaller financing pie in a new and different way between the 43 police forces across England and Wales. Just like the charity sector, the only certainty is that more uncertainty is on its way.

Staying with the subject of money, daily cashflow management is as important in my new role as it was in the old one. Modelling the flow of funds to maximise return while making sure we can pay our commitments as they fall due remains vital – but unlike the charity world, in the public sector the limits on what we may invest in are stringent. Putting cash into money market funds is about as wild as we are allowed to get. That makes sense: nearly a decade on, the public sector still shudders at the mention of Icelandic banks. The corporate memory sticks, and for good reason.

Just like charities, one of the ways in which we’re coping with austerity is to partner up with other organisations. Cambridgeshire Constabulary has formed a strategic alliance with Bedfordshire Police and Hertfordshire Constabulary to provide a resilient, cost-effective policing service across the three counties, covering frontline policing as well as back office functions. By contrast, other police forces have taken different savings routes, with partnerships, outsourcing, shared services and alliancing all common vehicles. For example, Lincolnshire Police have arranged for G4S to provide operational services as well as administrative functions including ICT, HR, procurement, estates management and finance.

Sensible procurement is a mainstay of being able to do more with less. Securing the best possible deal is a vital weapon in the fight to make savings, and police forces across the country are homing in on collaborative procurement. In September 2015, Cambridgeshire joined over 30 other policing and fire bodies in a vehicle purchasing consortium that is due to yield capital savings of over £200,000 for Cambridgeshire in the next two years. Similarly, Newnham College’s partnership with the other Cambridge colleges and the central university in procurements for everything from catering to energy saved us tens of thousands of pounds in the three years that I worked at there.

Transparency is also a common theme. The vast majority of charities are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, unlike the public sector.  However, as Newnham College receives government funds, it does fall under the Act, so this was good training for my new role. Also in the spirit of transparency, the police and crime commissioner’s most recent annual report contained more detailed financial and budgetary information than ever before, taking the reader on a user-friendly journey through the results for the year as well as the challenges ahead.

The Commissioner’s Office is responsible for making grants to other organisations for victim services and community safety. As you’d expect, we’re incredibly careful to ensure that grant conditions are complied with, via carefully written agreements signed by both parties, and regular monitoring reviews and meetings. This has strong parallels with my role at the college in dealing with legacies and donations, ring-fencing them in the ledger and ensuring they were applied strictly according to the donor’s wishes.  Indeed, there are a lot of similarities between working for a directly elected public official and working with donors and academics, achieving their vision whilst ensuring compliance.  The main difference in working for a politician is that I get to see, understand and help to realise the big, national picture.

The charity and public sectors have a lot to learn from each other, and the financial management skills required to thrive in either are highly transferrable. Colleagues thinking of making the move should be confident of success.

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