The Ri5 interview: 
Philippa Watkins and Anthony Lewis, CIPFA Penna

The Ri5 interview:
Philippa Watkins and Anthony Lewis, CIPFA Penna


For several years the public sector has faced significant challenges – budget cuts and headcount reductions, while being required to maintain and in some cases improve its output. It might not seem the ideal circumstances in which to attract people to the sector, but the team at CIPFA Penna are demonstrating how to make a success of it.

The two organisations came together in 2015. CIPFA – the acronym stands for the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy – is a membership body for finance professionals working in the public sector, and had for many years run its own interim recruitment company which provided finance professionals into predominantly local government. At the same time Penna had a well-established foothold in the public sector from an attraction and executive interim and search perspective.

Speaking to Anthony Lewis, director of Penna’s Local Government Interim Practice, and Philippa Watkins, CIPFA Penna finance lead, it is easy to understand why the two organisations came together and why the partnership has been successful in its first eighteen months.

“There’s a synergy between the two organisations,” says Watkins. “If you work in the public sector there’s a good chance you’ll know either CIPFA or Penna – or both – very well. The two brands also mirror each other really well; they’re really nicely interlinked.”

Lewis adds: “Fundamentally, as a membership body CIPFA wants to see its people get qualified and progress in their careers – and Penna was able to help provide a great platform for candidates to find interim or permanent roles in the sector. Working together made perfect sense.”

Watkins describes: “The first eighteen months of the partnership have been very smooth and synergistic. Our associates and clients have all taken to it very positively, and have welcomed the added value. it’s been a win-win for both organisations, our clients and candidates.”

Lewis is keen to point out that the shared values across both organisations were a key element in the smooth transition and a solid first year and a half.  

He says: “The associate base and client base held the CIPFA values and standards very dear, and at Penna we totally appreciated that. There had been an ongoing search for a recruitment partner for CIPFA, and Penna’s appreciation for CIPFA’s values and our shared ambition for growth meant we were a perfect fit.

The pair also underline how the transition was assisted by a consistent communication process for those stakeholders who valued the CIPFA brand and who didn’t want to see any of its offering diluted, or see any of its core processes affected by the change. Lewis emphasises that any changes were small and clearly signposted throughout the process.

And, as Watkins adds, stakeholders weren’t just reassured that the same services would be on offer – the new CIPFA Penna partnership would in fact be able to offer more than they had access to before, offering a full range of employment lifecycle services which clients have welcomed.

So, with a smooth transition process under their belts and a year and a half into the partnership, what’s next for CIPFA Penna?

“Growth is a big focus,” says Lewis. “At the moment we’re a fairly small but perfectly formed team and we have a fantastic opportunity to grow and define the structure of the team as we want it, ensuring we’ve got all the support and resource in place.

“That’s a real luxury,” he adds. “You don’t get to do it in many organisations.”

CIPFA Penna currently has over fifty associates and over thirty clients, but as far as Lewis and Watkins are concerned the team is only scratching the surface in what has been achieved so far. Building on the past eighteen months will include a plan of how to achieve a wider geographic and public sector spread across the UK.

However, as Lewis points out: “We don’t want to offer things we can’t deliver. We’re constantly looking for people to join our team and help to achieve the growth we envisage.

“The only limitation to growth is that we have to bring in the right recruiters; it’s so important to have people who are passionate about the outcomes for our candidates and clients, and who will deliver a tailored solution not an off-the-shelf one. So, we will be careful about our hires, just as we advise our clients to be.”

Watkins adds: “We want to attract good people and we want to be an employer of choice at all levels of the organisation. Both Anthony and I have worked across the sector at different organisations, but things definitely feel different here.”

As well as increasing its geographic reach, CIPFA Penna is ambitious to grow into areas such as health, not-for-profit, education and central government.

Lewis says: “If we meet the right people who are a good fit for our organisation and our values, that’s what’s important. It doesn’t matter if somebody is the ‘best in the business’ at what they do – if they don’t fit and uphold our values they’re just not right for us. 

Lewis also describes how, as the organisation moves forward, he is keen to focus on a personal passion – the journey of talent from the private sector to the public. He acknowledges that while the switch is more common in the other direction, there are compelling reasons for private sector workers to consider a move into the public sector, particularly in the area of finance.

“A few years ago, you would have been laughed at if you’re tried to get somebody to leave the private sector for the public sector,” he says. “But it’s changing – public sector bodies are comparable, if not bigger, than private sector companies in terms of budgets, structures and strategic challenges. The difficulty is one of portrayal – you will, unfortunately, rarely see overtly positive representations of the public sector in the media. But the more positivity and celebration there is of the public sector, the more people will realise how attractive it is.”

He adds: “Let’s not overlook the achievements made by the public sector over the past few years. And we should recognise that some of the arm’s-length trading organisations they are establishing are SMEs in their own right.

“Can you imagine telling the average CEO of a private sector business they had to reduce both their headcount and budget by 40%, while meeting increased demand and improving the quality of their output? Well, that’s what the public sector has had to deliver – and it has done it incredibly well.”

In CIPFA Penna’s view, this transfer of talent from private to public sector will be an increasingly important theme, and the team is actively looking at how to unlock some of those opportunities.

“Talent is a big challenge in the sector - as it is anywhere at the moment.” Lewis concludes. “How do you attract talent into public sector, and how do you retain and offer the progression that ensures individuals can rise through organisations and develop their own skills? It’s not simple.

“But at the same time we find reasons to be really confident – and this makes us even more excited for what we can achieve in the next couple of years of our growth.”

Thursday, 9 February 2017

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