Remaking the Roles of Finance Officers

The Ministry of Finance is pushing for finance officers to emerge from the backroom, for a more strategic role in the organisation. 
Remaking the Roles of Finance Officers

Think of a finance officer, and images of a tough gatekeeper or a bean counter (a disparaging term for a fastidious accountant) probably come to mind.

Or worse, finance staff are even viewed as “terrors” who chase public officers for payments when the financial year draws to a close, says Mr Anthony Tan who was Director of the Transformation Office at the Ministry of Finance (MOF) at the time of the interview.

He is now Deputy Secretary (Policy) at the Ministry of Health (MOH).

Others get frustrated with their finance colleagues for rejecting their requests for funds, likening it to “squeezing blood out of stone”, Mr Tan adds, noting that those finance officers are just following rules to ensure prudence and propriety in the use of public resources.

In short, finance folks are often seen as impediments rather than enablers when it comes to advancing the organisation’s projects and objectives.

It is a mindset that long needs an overhaul. The role of finance officers does not need to be confined to cash flow and revenue models. Instead, they can further contribute as strategic partners in policy planning and decision making. With this aim of elevating finance roles from a merely supportive function, MOF’s Strategic Finance Transformation Office (SFTO) was thus set up. The SFTO comes under the larger Transformation Office that pushes for changes throughout the Public Service. Once led by Mr Tan, the Transformation Office is now under the charge of Dr Thia Jang Ping.

Why a makeover is due

Currently, many finance officers are performing back-end functions such as processing payments and claims. Often, they are consulted only after management decisions have been made, leaving them to scramble for funds later.

In fact, the financial expertise that finance officers possess can be used more strategically earlier on in business planning, for example, in helping senior management make better decisions in resource prioritisation and allocation, says Mr Tan. This helps to ensure that the money is used efficiently to achieve outcomes that benefit the country.

For a start, some public agencies already have finance officers playing strategic roles.

Director (Healthcare Finance) Lai Wei Lin from MOH, for instance, is a double-hatter who not only oversees the budget but is also heading the ministry’s policy divisions.

To Ms Lai, a finance officer needs to possess the qualities of both a gatekeeper and a strategic business partner: the officer cannot simply approve every request for funds, but he or she can have a say in how that money can be used effectively.

When financial resources are managed wisely, they can be “a powerful lever to transform behaviour… through the clever design of incentives,” she adds. For instance, Ms Lai and her team of finance policy officers are working to design subsidy policies in a way that would encourage patients and healthcare providers to use the more cost- and clinically effective drugs and treatments.

With a likely increase in healthcare spending because of our rapidly ageing population, it is important that finance officers are roped in to plan the budget and how it will be used for the coming years, says Mr Tan. Using their financial expertise, they can suggest clever investments the ministry can make now that will contribute towards better outcomes in the future.

Remaking the Roles of Finance Officers

Nudges in the right direction

Meanwhile, finance officers themselves would like to play a more active and strategic role in projects or business operations, as the SFTO has found after a series of Listening Tours with finance staff of different levels from various agencies.

In response, the SFTO recently launched the new Finance Competency Framework, a guide for officers on becoming better business partners, in April. The framework comes with a directory of the training courses available to help officers acquire the right competencies and skills to perform their roles better.

The role of finance officers does not need to be confined to cash flow and revenue models. Instead, they can further contribute as strategic partners in policy planning and decision making.

Being strategic also involves the ability to better manage risk, for example detecting financial fraud. MOF has teamed up with the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore to equip finance officers with analytics tools that will enable them to pick up fishy spending patterns after scrutinising certain financial data. For instance, the tools can help finance staff assess the authenticity of transport claims in their departments.

See the value yet?

These efforts to beef up the skills and knowledge of finance officers will have little effect unless senior managers at agencies start to value their finance staff for their strategic role. On the ground, public officers can involve their finance colleagues at the decision-making stages of a project.

For those willing to come on-board the transformation journey, be prepared for endless modifications to the finance function, because it will always evolve to keep up with changing times.

“It’s [similar to] a big, messy migration; trying to bring officers – the fast movers and stragglers – from one point to another,” admits Mr Tan. But if a change in the finance role can help the Public Service to make better sense of its dollars and cents, the effort is worth it.

    May 14, 2013
    Chen Jingting
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