Why Public Sector Audit?

As a placement student in Public Sector Audit (PSA), you soon learn that when Grant Thornton job advertisements state that your job role will entail early responsibility, they are not joking! You will be plunged straight into work after your first week of induction training, with a supportive team around to answer questions and to help you get to grips with the day-to-day activities of your job.

However, as is typical with audit, there are peaks and troughs in the volume of work throughout the year. During quieter periods, you can utilise your time to learn more about the business and your chosen department. Commercial awareness is widely valued at Grant Thornton, so an understanding both your clients and the wider assurance department helps you to improve the quality of your work.

I interviewed Richard Percival, an Associate Director in the Birmingham office to learn more about the world of Audit. His candid replies offer a more personal insight into PSA, and he has a few words of advice for those of you that may still be uncertain of whether to apply for an intern or trainee role, helping you to make an informed decision based upon your interests and motivations. It’s not a shortest of articles, but it is definitely worth a read, so here goes!

What was your journey into PSA at Grant Thornton?

“Many moons ago, I completed a degree in Economics at Leicester Polytechnic (now known as De ’Montfort University). Jobs that I’ve held in the past include working a dairy farm and in a sports shop, among others.

I later decided pursue a career in finance, and so I joined a small firm of accountants in Worcestershire. Unfortunately, I failed my accountancy exams whilst I was there, and with crushing disappointment I gave up, I deciding that perhaps accountancy may not be route for me.

In my next job, I went on to work for a local council. My boss at the time agreed to offer me a job contract strictly on the basis that I to continue study and obtain my professional qualifications. I subsequently achieved them, and then I went on to work for the Audit Commission for 23 years, before joining Grant Thornton 5 years ago.”

Why PSA?

“I enjoy variety that working in PSA brings due to the vast range of services that the public sector provides, from ensuring that your bins are emptied, to shaping local economies and saving lives.

As an Economics student, I was always interested in the way that we make decisions on the things that the market doesn’t provide. For example, making a decision to pay for a new iPhone or a laptop is usually relatively straight-forward. But on the other hand, who is responsible for footing the cost of an aging population? Rational decisions need to be made, and the result of many of the choices that are made fall to public sector services to execute.”

How do the challenges that public sector organisations currently face impact your work?

“Challenges such as austerity impact upon my work quite a lot. For example, cuts in funding NHS organisations and local authorities are reflected in their accounts, causing changes in the way in which their resources are utilised. It’s our responsibility as auditors to assess financial integrity and transparency, making sure that people can put trust in the public organisations that provide services for them.

Part of our job as PSA Auditors is to carry out Value for Money work, giving assurance on whether the actions that public sector bodies carry out are a good use of resources. Value for Money work has become increasingly important to the public sector as over the past 7 years, since reductions in funding have led to many organisations struggling to reduce costs and maintain financial sustainability.

Whilst poor performance in the private (commercial audit) sector might impact on the dividends that a firms shareholders receive, performance failures in the public sector can be catastrophic; from a lack of hospital beds, chronic shortages of local services and even tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower Fire in London. A mature and effective public sector is crucial to maintaining the relative level of comfort we enjoy here in the UK today, as opposed to the often dire circumstances faced by people in countries with a poorly performing or even non-existent public sector.”

What have been some of your most rewarding moments at Grant Thornton?

“Being the lead manager for the Birmingham City Council audit (the largest local authority in the UK) has definitely been one of the high-lights of my career at Grant Thornton. It’s been a huge job, but with a dedicated team over the past 7 years we have supported the improvement in both the quality and timeliness of the Council’s accounts.”

What part of your job do you find most enjoyable?

“Audit is a nosy person’s paradise. You have the remit to really stick your nose in, and get to the nitty gritty of how an organisations finances are managed. You need to have intellectual curiosity, and you are encouraged to ask questions. Knowing that the work I do leads to conversations that are purposeful and impactful, and that the work I do adds value to society, it’s a great feeling.

The technicalities of audit may not be the most fascinating bit of the job, and very few people wake up in the morning with a burning desire to dig into an excel spreadsheet. However, whilst many people have the impression that audits are strictly about figures and bottom lines, you can’t survive in this role without the ability to have challenging conversations, often with very important people.”

What do you like most about working at Grant Thornton?

“Grant Thornton has a brilliant, positive energy, and lots of diversity, with people from a range of different backgrounds, and refreshingly for an old codger like me, different age groups! There is lots of young talent at GT, and an environment that is supportive of growth.

There is also structural diversity at Grant Thornton. For example, the opportunity for local and international secondments allows Grant Thornton staff to from to gain experience within different areas of our firm, as well as providing us with the opportunity to work within other firms or gain new skills whilst travelling abroad.

I also like the choice of initiatives available for staff to get involved with. From working for a range of not-for-profits, to being involved with our Vibrant Economy initiative, there are rewarding experiences to be had, which will allow you to take a wider look at what can be done to make the UK a more vibrant, progressive place.”

What sets Grant Thornton apart from other large firms?

“Well, I didn’t join Grant Thornton from the Big Four, so I’m not best placed to make comparisons. What I can say though, is that Grant Thornton has a genuine commitment to the public sector, and our work is important to us not only as a firm, but also as individuals and citizens. We are the largest provider of external audit to Health and local government organisations in the UK and our market share continues to grow.

Our senior leadership team is made up of people that have a meaningful view of contributing to society and are not afraid to challenge the status quo. Their shared commitment and emphasis on  team-building make this a great environment to work in.”

What’s the best career advice you have ever been given?

The best career advice I was given was from a former boss, who told me not to be discouraged or give up, but to continue to work on becoming qualified! I know it may seem like a daunting task for many of you who are fresh out of Sixth Form or University to commit to years of more training and exams, but honestly, my life has been the better for it. I wouldn’t underestimate the value of being professionally qualified, as by putting the effort in to gain my qualifications, I now work in a job that I enjoy and I command a skill set that is valued by the current job market.”

Lastly, do you have any words of advice for incoming Audit trainees?

  • Display curiosity! In Audit you have got to want to know and find out about how things work, as well as being willing to invest time and effort into learning. Continuous personal development is key.
  • Have a team ethos. You can’t achieve anything great on you own, you will need help and you will also need to help others. You will spend many years of your life in employment, so building a great team or being a member of a great team will significantly boost your satisfaction with your career.
  • Enjoy getting out and about. It will make you’re a role as an auditor that much more enjoyable, going to different organisations and finding out what makes them tick. Much better than sitting at the same desk every day.
  • Have an interest in your sector. Having an interest in Local Government, the NHS and other public sector bodies will help you to understand the bigger picture of your job. Likewise, for those of you interested in commercial audit, an interest in the way that businesses operate will help you succeed.

* End of interview *

Our hot chocolate had gotten cold by this point, and I apologised profusely to Richard for chatting his ears off! To wrap it all up, we hope that Richards’s words have given you a greater understanding of PSA, and the opportunities that it can provide. Being a PSA trainee at Grant Thornton is an opportunity to try something new, receive training throughout your time with us, become a qualified auditor and work as part of a great team. What are you waiting for? Put your best foot forward!

Uniqua Brown –Public Sector Audit Associate