We train them and then they leave!
As we implement the ISSAIs, especially the financial audit ISSAIs, we need professional staff but how do we train and re-train them? In one way or other this was a constant refrain in the formal and informal discussions at the recent Congress in Abu Dhabi. Once we have trained people, and especially once they have professional accounting qualifications, how do we pay enough to keep staff. This is not an easy one to solve and is something Auditors-General and Senior Managers wrestle with across the SAI community. But there are some solutions which I have seen work.
At base, it is important to understand the market in which a SAI operates. What is the going rate in the private sector or in other parts of the public sector for qualified accountants or auditors? It is useful to engage a consultancy body with experience of carrying out such comparator exercises? In one country where we did this the comparators were some of the private sector firms but also the Revenue Authority. Knowing the going rate is a useful starting point. A SAI may not need to match the private sector completely because working in the public sector brings many other benefits which are not available to the private sector – usually better pensions, access to wider training opportunities, longer holidays and shorter days, better job protection, a wider variety of work, and the public sector ethos of contributing to wider social benefits. However, having hard data of this kind makes it easier to make a defensible case for salary uplifts (if warranted) with Parliaments and Ministries of Finance.
In situations where a SAI needs to follow public sector wide salary bands, then it can be difficult to make a special case for improvements to the salaries of SAI staff. Again data on turnover or problems with recruiting qualified staff should be collected to help substantiate claims. But equally a SAI can forge links with other key public sector bodies needing to employ qualified financial experts for example the Ministry of Finance, Revenue Authority and Internal Audit Services and make a joint proposal to the Public Service Board or equivalent putting the case for a more market responsive salary scale for financial staff. Such cases can be made stronger if the SAI shows how recruiting qualified financial staff can generate efficiencies and not just lead to an increased staffing bill.
Where the SAI is a training organisation, then it risks losing a proportion of these staff once they gain their professional qualification. The UK NAO provides for this risk by training more than it wishes to eventually retain – recognising that even during training such staff are productive and play a major role in carrying out the routine aspects of the annual audits. At the same time, it is important that these trainees are well supported and motivated during training so that they can see a satisfying career in the NAO when they become qualified. Early in their career we seek to expose these newly qualified staff to a wide range of interesting assignments, to continue to invest in their professional development and to make sure they feel valued members of the organisation. In Rwanda a number of years ago, a colleague asked one of the shining middle-manager stars what it would take from the SAI to keep people like him in the office, as she had identified him as just the type of person the office would need in order to keep progressing. His reply was that a recognition such as that would go a long way. If he only knew that top management saw him as an important part of the office’s development and that they were willing to invest in him that would make a difference. He said nothing about the salary.
It is also sometimes practical to make sure that the accountancy or audit qualification offered by the SAI is one which is oriented to the public sector (so making private sector poaching less likely). In other situations, a SAI may choose to offer staff accounting or auditing certificates or diplomas which are at sub-professional level with only a few being taken through the full courses needed to become full members of the professional associations.
But staff will leave – and it is important that their leaving is managed well. They can be important ambassadors for the SAI when they move elsewhere, they can make useful contributions to improving public financial management elsewhere and in some cases they may want to come back with new skills and experiences into more senior roles in the SAI. It can be a win-win!