Public good

At PwC you could be tackling the big challenges facing public sector organisations today. Hannah Langworth speaks to Sarah Isted, assurance partner in the Government & Public Sector team, to find out more

Can you tell us about your career to date at PwC?

I joined PwC in 1996 when I left university. Before I started at PwC, I'd done a six week summer internship scheme at the firm, which was fantastic. I was then offered a job, and joined when I graduated. Since then, I've worked entirely in PwC's Government & Public Sector business, which I now lead, and I've recently taken on a new role as Head of People for the overall assurance practice, that is, the parts of our business where we provide assurance over clients' financial performance and controls, and help them to function better.

People sometimes ask me why I'm still here at PwC, fifteen years after joining. I think the thing that motivates me is making a difference, whether that's to my clients, or to our people. And the variety of the work that we do is incredible - no day, or year, is the same. Also, the quality of our staff continues to amaze me. In my new role, I've met a huge range of our people across the country, and I'm always struck by the high standard of their work and their passion for it.

Why did you choose to join the Government & Public Sector team at PwC, and what's working here all about?

Both of my parents have jobs in the public sector, so I had a real interest in this area of work before I joined the firm. And on my summer internship scheme, I got involved with a number of government and public sector clients, which made me realise that working here would be a great way to help organisations in this sector.

In the Government & Public Sector practice at PwC we work across a number of different public sector areas, for example, central government, local government, healthcare, housing, education and charities. We provide a range of services to these clients, but essentially we're aiming to give them confidence that their financial systems are operating appropriately, and that their financial statements are true and fair. We also help clients improve the way they work, for example by making their IT environments more secure, or enabling them to get better value for money from their suppliers.

We have a thought leadership programme where we give our views on some of the current challenges for the public sector. Topics we've recently looked at include whether the government can deliver the cuts required by the comprehensive spending review, how greater individual responsibility for public services can be realised, and how we can ensure that the focus of public service delivery is on real people in their communities.

Can you give us an example of some work you've done for particular clients?

We do a lot of work for the independent regulator for NHS foundation trusts, primarily assessing NHS trusts to see whether they're ready for the greater independence that comes with being a foundation trust. We look at the financial performance and viability of particular NHS trusts, their governance arrangements, and assess whether any operational improvements need to be made before they can convert.

We also do a lot of external audit work, which is where we're engaged to make sure that the numbers that public sector organisations put into the public domain are correct. High-profile clients that we work with include the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Work and Pensions, Imperial College and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

What do you think are the key challenges for the sector today, and how do you see its future?

Right now is probably the most challenging time I've ever known for the sector. All of our clients are facing significant issues, such as having to make major cost savings, be more efficient in what they do, collaborate more with other public and private sector organisations, or ensure that they're responding effectively to the public. And the current focus on transparency and accountability in government means there's never been a more important time for assurance in the public sector. We help our clients with all of these challenges.

Despite today's tough economic conditions and the difficulty of predicting where things might go, I still feel optimistic for the sector's future. The passion and commitment of the people working here is very high, and they want to deliver the changes and the major projects currently being demanded from them.

What kind of graduates do you look for at PwC in general, and to work in Government & Public Sector specifically?

At PwC as a whole we're looking for graduates who are high performers, who are innovative, and who can work successfully in a team - and lead a team as well. It's also important that they're aware of what they need to do to progress, and that they're committed to their own personal development. We also look for people with a sense of fun - our graduates are very dedicated and work very hard, but we want them to enjoy what they do here.

Students applying to work in Government & Public Sector need to be genuinely interested in assurance and our practice. Most of our graduate recruits have a real passion for the public sector. Some people have done some relevant work experience, but by no means everybody. Some have taken the opportunity to study relevant courses as part of their degree, and others just have a strong general interest in it. So when we're interviewing people, we'll ask them questions about current issues for government and public sector. We're not looking for students with a right answer, but for those who have views and can engage in debate.

At PwC, we're very committed to people's development, and we produce professional leaders. If you look at the backgrounds of the chief financial officers or chief executive officers in the charity or education sectors, or at FTSE companies, you'll find many of them have been trained by PwC.

Richard Fleming joined PwC's Government & Public Sector team earlier this year. Here he describes why he joined the firm, and how he's finding his role

Can you outline your educational background? What led you to join PwC as a graduate?

I studied at Durham University for three years and graduated with a 2:1 in philosophy. It might seem quite a jump from philosophy to PwC, but there's not really any degree which leads specifically to a career in professional services, and PwC welcomes students from any degree discipline. A lot of people here have science backgrounds, or have studied subjects like English literature or history, so there's a real mix.

I took a gap year after I graduated, and spent some time in the Gambia, working in the Ministry of Health and with their national beekeepers' association. I did quite a lot of accountancy-related work for both, looking over their financial records and trying to find ways they could become more efficient. Doing these tasks made me realise that I wanted to work in the government or charity sector, but I didn't want to limit myself to working for just one organisation. So I applied to PwC because I felt that at a professional services firm I'd get an in-depth knowledge of particular types of organisation and industry sectors, but also a range of client experiences. I also wanted the opportunity to study for a professional qualification while working.

What type of work have you done during your first months at the firm?

In my first couple of weeks of work I shadowed a senior manager, seeing what she was doing, sitting in on meetings, and so on. Since then, I've been involved in some external audit work for a museum and for an education client. External audit work is where we, as an independent third party, check the accounts a client has prepared to ensure that they're a true and fair reflection of their financial position. I've also spent some time on an internal audit for a housing client. Unlike external audits, internal audits are not required by law, and doing them is more like advisory work - the client generally wants us to check the way in which they're doing something to make sure they're doing it correctly. On this internal audit, the other graduate working on it and I did everything, from the first meeting to the final report writing, which was really interesting.

I've had a lot of coaching during the course of the work I've done so far. The people I've worked with have spent a lot of time talking me through the work and making sure I'm happy with what I'm doing and why - and you're encouraged to ask questions. Once you've done a piece of work, managers above you will review it and give you feedback, so you always feel that you're learning and developing.

What is the ACA? How have you found studying for it?

The Association of Chartered Accountants qualification (ACA) is a set of exams set by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW). Once you pass these exams and have a sufficient amount of work experience, you become a qualified chartered accountant.

One of the most important things about the ACA is that it's not just number crunching. It's primarily a business qualification, so as well as studying accounting you also learn about tax, law, business management, and finance. You get a really good grounding in how businesses are structured, how they work day to day, and the various issues that they need to be aware of.

I've found studying for the ACA tough, but do-able. The college courses that PwC organise for us to help us prepare for our exams are incredibly well taught. There's a lot of progress tests, so you can always find out what level you're working at, and what your weak areas are that you need to focus on. There's also a professional qualifications manager at PwC who's available to talk to if you feel you're slipping behind with the studying and need further support.

What do you think are PwC's key strengths as an employer?

I've been impressed by how focused PwC is on development and training. I've found there's an emphasis on making sure you're always being coached and that you know where to go to find out more. They also really support you while you're at college - for example, they make sure you're not contacted about client work while you're there so you can focus on getting your studying done.

PwC is also great at encouraging you to find the experiences you want to have - if you express an interest in a particular project or client, they'll make an effort to fit you into the relevant team. But they also make sure you get a broad range of work so you can find what suits you most - I initially wanted to work with charities, but have done some really interesting work on housing too.

Has anything surprised you about PwC?

I've been surprised by how easy it is to get to know people, even though PwC is such a big firm. Each business is split into sub-groups and in the office you're always sitting with people in the same sub-group as you, so you get to know them well.

I've also been surprised by the good work-life balance at PwC. For charity and government clients the hours are fairly regular - usually 9am to 5pm or 6pm. There's a social committee who organise events, like bowling nights or drinks events. We've recently had our annual ball and our Christmas party.

What advice do you have for students interested in working at PwC?

If there are vacancies available and you are in your penultimate year of study, think about doing an internship at PwC - I never did one, but a lot of people I've spoken to say doing one was their route into the firm. The other thing to think about doing is some relevant work experience or volunteering outside PwC. If you're interested in working in the Government & Public Sector team, spending some time volunteering for a charity, working at your local council, or shadowing an MP would be really useful. If you come here for an interview, they're going to ask you to explain why you're interested in the public sector and the part of PwC you're applying to, and if you've got a bit of relevant experience, you'll stand out.

It's also worth looking at the ICAEW website for information about the ACA and thinking about whether the qualification is right for you. It's hard work, so you have to be sure that you want to do it to succeed. Keep up to date with news about the professional services industry and the client sectors you're interested in, so for Government & Public Sector that means national politics and local government news.