The African public sector has a severe shortage of professional accountants and auditors (both referred to here as “accountants”). Professional accountants working in government are typically only exposed to private sector theory during their initial professional development (IPD). They often lack an understanding of the public sector challenges and expectations relating to their position.
Without sufficient professional accountants, African states are vulnerable to exploitation and corruption. It is for this reason that the African Professionalisation Initiative (API) was set up. The API works to grow the capacity of accountants to have the competencies needed to be effective in an evolving public sector role. The API is a partnership between the accounting profession, accountants general, and supreme audit institutions (SAIs) from across Africa.
During recent meetings of the API Board, several members shared their respective country perspectives on the need for a capacitated workforce that can effectively handle public sector accountancy matters.
What need can be addressed by the API?
One member raised a concerning perspective related to the belief that the training of accountants requires significant effort and resources. The challenge is how to develop accountants that not only understand the public sector, but who can also work in the private sector. The leadership of that country felt that the API should play a facilitative role, by connecting different organisations for a mutual mission of professionalising public sector accountants. This would enable better integration between regions in Africa making sure that ‘no country is left behind’ in the professionalisation agenda. Another member perspective was that there should be a focus on building capacity of qualified professional accountants in line with country needs. Through the support of partners such as AFROSAI-E and the World Bank, the country had thus far been able to move forward on several PFM reforms. It is therefore considered important to tie professionalisation efforts to reforms that are already taking place in that country.
A member from the Francophone region said that there is a definite need in their country for capacity building. The numbers of ‘sharp professionals’ are considered quite low, despite the country implementing a programme to improve the situation. The country concerned currently has some training in place and therefore is still on a journey of capacity building. However, the API is seen as an initiative that can come in handy to supply the much-needed relevant training materials.
In a different country, the member noted that the accounting profession is at an early growth stage. The country recently launched a professional accountancy organisation (PAO), along with the first batch of exams written soon thereafter. The number of qualified accountants is however still not in line with what the economy needs. This is despite government sponsoring students to pursue accountancy related qualification from as far back as 2006 (with foreign PAOs). The latest projection on the future needs of that country show that the number of professional accountants needed is still much higher than the rate of professionalisation. The API can therefore play a crucial role in bridging the existing gap.
In addressing the issue of relevancy of the accountancy qualification, one country’s PAOs has adopted two different models for a public sector accounting qualification. One of the PAOs included public sector content into its existing programme while the other made its public sector qualification a stand-alone qualification, based on a competency framework like the API’s accelerated learning programme. In this instance the API’s competency framework and learning content was of great benefit to the two PAOs concerned. Overall, the API competency framework and capacity building methodology provides a good benchmark between what is happening in different jurisdictions and what is considered as best practice.
What efforts have been undertaken to attract and retain qualified professionals in the public sector?
Several approaches have been employed to attract and retain competent professionals in the public sector to drive the required change. There is however a limitation in terms of research carried out in this area. Highlighted below are perspectives shared by some of the board members of API on this matter:
A member from the Francophone region expressed that in their country recruitment of the public sector workforce is the responsibility of a designated committee. Those recruited are officers that are trained by country institutions in government service. However, they often lacked adequate exposure on emerging issues in accounting and auditing. Some of the public service challenges the member described, relates to ensuring adequate accountability, the transition to accrual accounting and the re-training of accounting staff who were originally trained on single entry accounting. The member noted that accountants working in the public sector are often encouraged to study a master’s in public finance but, implementing the API can assist in driving demand for similar programmes that lead to professional certification.
Furthermore, accountants in the Francophone region face the challenge of that an accountant must choose to work either in the public or private sector. Given that there is no structure to ensure mobility between public and private sectors or vice versa, majority of these professionals opted to work in the private sector. In one Anglophone country a member said that the main challenge for that public sector environment is in attracting and retaining professional accountants, despite lower pay scales compared to what the private sector offers. There is also a belief that it takes longer to rise through the ranks in the public sector compared to the private sector. To address these and other challenges, the government, through the country’ public service commission, has developed a scheme of service for all public sector employees. This is aimed at retaining competent accountants in the public sector, especially as the country is implementing IPSAS.
Continuing the topic of attraction and retention, the member said that the reality of limited resources, is a significant challenge. This country was proactive and developed a multi-year training and development plan, in collaboration with other institutional partners. The implementation of this plan was extended by government for an added five years, with an intention that it would lead to certification.
Another member shared that their country has experienced several ethical failures, with professionalisation at low levels. The public sector started the professionalisation journey a few years back by specifying qualifications for every job grade and set minimum competency levels. More importantly, there was a strong push for everyone to be professionalised, including recognition that there might be a need for forensic accounting skills, with a designation in this field being available for those already serving in the public sector to undertake.
The last member to provide their perspective agreed that the main challenge in the public sector is the lack of resources, in addition to competing with the private sector for talent. The member recommended that the starting point should be to upskill those already in positions. This is as opposed to recruiting those from the outside, which would require them to come into an unfamiliar terrain, and most likely leave at the earliest opportunity. It was found that for the public sector to be attractive, there is a need to design packages that are competitive, with adequate opportunity for personal development.