Winner: Finance Service for their work developing and implementing the Finance Academy, Surrey County Council
Surrey County Council’s Financial Academy learning and development programme helped staff throughout the organisation develop finance skills and improve their understanding.
Surrey County Council delivers services to a population of about 1.2 million people. In 2018, CIPFA delivered a highly critical external review of its financial management, which said the authority would not have sufficient reserves to meet its expected budget gap in the next two years. The review urged Surrey to “reform fundamentally how it provides services to its communities”. It said “securing the commitment of everyone connected to Surrey County Council to resolving the financial difficulties faced will be critical to overcoming its financial challenges”.
Following the review, Surrey put a financial improvement programme into place, including the creation of a Finance Academy. Through the academy, members of staff from the bottom to the top of the organisation, as well as elected members, are trained to improve their knowledge of finance. The initiative trains financial specialists and budget holders together, and aims to be both accessible and flexible in the opportunities it provides. Surrey’s roughly 380 budget holders were the first priority. The academy has been key to driving a shift in financial management culture.
The academy set out to encourage good financial management by empowering and enabling staff rather than simply enforcing control and compliance. Training includes videos, guidance notes, case studies, worked examples, hints and tips. Classroom-based training is based around short, recorded pieces and can be revisited whenever necessary, making the transition to virtual training during the pandemic much smoother.
The Finance Academy had three aims:
• Refreshing and developing the financial understanding of elected members, and targeting specific training at those in specific roles;
• Ensuring all decision makers are aware of their financial management roles and giving them the skills to meet their responsibilities;
• Setting out mutual expectations, roles and responsibilities for both the finance and the service functions of the council.
Councillor Becky Rush, cabinet member for resources and corporate support at the authority, said: “In my day-to-day cabinet role I have the benefit of the investment Surrey County Council has made in the Finance Academy. Whichever meeting I attend, I witness finance and directorate officers sitting side by side, having discussions about consistent finance data with knowledge and insight.
• Finance Team, Worcestershire County Council
• Finance Team, Newcastle City Council
• Finance Team, Worcestershire County Council
Winner: Risk Management Team, Department for Work and Pensions
In response to the surging unemployment caused by the effects of Covid-19, the Department for Work and Pensions’ risk management team created a central oversight function to ensure standardised and consistent reporting of all key business decisions and easements in the public interest.
The Department for Work and Pensions played a critical role in responding to the dramatic rise in unemployment in response to the pandemic in 2020-21. In just a few weeks, there were more than two million new claims for benefits, as well as more reports of deaths. Both had significant impacts on the pensions service and bereavement support payments.
The department was required to make many rapid – often concurrent – decisions in order to meet this demand. At the same time, it had to manage with significantly fewer staff, as well as – like many other organisations – the shift to working from home where possible. This all required multiple decisions to be made across the department, which it recognised could become chaotic.
In mid-March 2020, the DWP established a multi-disciplinary function, led by the risk management team, to ensure all decisions taken were documented, with risks clearly set out. Because of the continuous monitoring and management, the team was confident the department was operating within governance standards.
The work was reported to the executive team and departmental audit and risk assurance committee, and further work was done to develop the department’s understanding of its appetite for risk. Weekly analysis and reporting allowed them to identify trends and compound impact on key areas of the department and understand cumulative impact and risk.
More than 1,200 risk-based decisions were made, assessed and tracked in four months, allowing the department to reinstate, revise or retain changes, as well as highlighting opportunities to innovate and accelerate transformation.
• NHS Wales Shared Services Partnership
• Business Assurance Team, Health and Safety Executive
• Fraud and Error in DWP Audit Team, National Audit Office
• HMT Balance Sheet Team, HM Treasury
• Internal Audit, HM Revenue & Customs
• MIAA contributing to the wider NHS
• The Internal Audit Network
Winner: COVID-19 Business Grants, North Norfolk District Council
North Norfolk District Council’s Business Grants Team has paid £55m of Covid-19 business grants for small business relief and retail discounts to in excess of 5,000 local businesses, £50m between April and May 2020.
North Norfolk District Council is a small rural and coastal district council, with 300 staff (FTE) covering 360 sq miles, an ageing population of 100,000 people and a net service budget of c£17m. Its online system to administer Covid-19 business support payments was designed and delivered at the start of lockdown with over 90% of staff working from home.
A cross-departmental team was established to lead the planning work, including finance, IT, communications, customer services and economic development staff. It established a clear vision at the outset to help provide clarity throughout the development process. This process took place across unfamiliar technologies including video conferencing.
The overarching principles of the project were to identify eligible customers quickly, design a simple online data assessment form to confirm eligibility, collect key information, minimise fraud and error and make payments. The biggest challenge identified at the outset included identifying eligible recipients and contacting them at a time that most businesses were closed. Others issues included futureproofing online forms when government guidance was still emerging and co-ordinating the project remotely at a time many staff were being redeployed to Covid-19-related tasks.
The council’s traditional approach to similar exercises relied on waiting for customers to contact the council and asking them to complete hard copies of application forms, returned by post. Council staff would then assess forms manually and make payments on a two-week cycle, meaning the end-to-end process would take four weeks.
The digitised approach implemented by the council saw the pre-vetting of nearly 6,000 customers to assess initial high-level eligibility. The team then reached out to those identified as potentially eligible through digital channels including email, the council’s website, plus Twitter, and Facebook.
Applicants filled out an online application form, which was matched to back-office systems. This helped speed the assessment process, increase validation, remove duplicate claims and reduce fraud. The total end-to-end process was reduced to just two days, and the system also enabled simpler performance reporting.
The scheme saw £55m of business grants distributed to more than 5,000 customers, with minimal fraud or errors identified. The scheme received significant positive customer feedback and has provided a platform for future automated payments – the authority has now paid more than £95m across various business grants covering 25,000 transactions.
As all of the programming of the online assessment forms and data capture was managed in-house without third party support. The council continues to work on making access to services as easy as possible, with the aim of making them available 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.
• Bradford Business Intelligence, City of Bradford MDC
• Digital First Finance, Royal Holloway Students Union, University of London
• Finance Process Automation, Companies House
• Forecasting Analysis Statistical Tool, Programmable Extract Transform and Loading System, East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust
• LIFT Platform Supports Sutton’s Strategic Drivers, Sutton Council and Policy in Practice
• The In Year Management Dashboard, Defence Equipment and Support, Ministry of Defence
Winner: Community Bond, West Berkshire Council
West Berkshire Council, a unitary Council, serves a population of circa 160,000 in the south of England, covering a wide area that has large areas of countryside dotted with market towns and villages. It declared a climate emergency in 2019, and is driving forward policy to deliver carbon neutrality. In 2019 it devised the idea of creating a retail bond to harness local support to fund the Council’s Environmental ambitions that would receive funding from individuals across the country to derive social value in financing our climate change ambitions.
The objective was to raise £1m to pay for solar panels on the roofs of six sites owned by the council at a cheaper rate of borrowing than the Public Works Loan Board rate and to close the bond within three months. The key challenge facing West Berkshire Council was issuing in the middle of the Covid pandemic. The ability to communicate face-to-face with local groups and communities was severely constrained, so we relied more on virtual briefings.
The council was the first in the country to launch a community bond, meaning that it had to produce educational material to explain what the bond was and how it would help individuals as well as the environment. The novelty also meant additional due diligence work had to be carried out, and a relationship built with consultancy Abundance Investment, which worked with the council to devise the project.
In the run up to launch, the authority carried out strong engagement with the local community. An independent focus group took place with randomly selected members of the community to raise the barriers and benefits. Presentations were made at the council’s district planning conference, with local climate groups, local and national media, through social media channels and through the Council’s regular Covid-19 newsletter.
The bond, with a duration of five years, attracted 640 investors across the country who snapped it up a week before its due close date. A quarter of the total invested amounts came from residents within the district who on average invested more than twice as much as non-residents in the scheme. The bond also launched at a rate of 1.2%; this was over 50 base points below the prevailing PWLB certainty rate at the time.
The success of the bond has led the council to consider using a bond structure for a new solar farm recently granted approval on the council’s land.
• ESG Project – Embedding a Culture of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Across our Organisation, Marston Holdings
• Integrating the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Surrey Pension Fund Team
Winner: Employment Support Scheme Audit Team, National Audit Office
The team responsible for holding the government to account for its unprecedented furlough schemes amid the pandemic had to work fast, in challenging circumstances, providing oversight for a significant amount of money.
The National Audit Office helps Parliament hold the government to account for the way it spends public money. It does so by auditing the finances of public bodies and scrutinising public spending to assess facts and value for the taxpayer. The NAO’s work sits at the heart of efforts to improve public service delivery.
The Employment Support Scheme Audit Team carried out the value for money audit of the government’s two furlough schemes between July and October 2020 and publishing a report for Parliament. The six-strong team was formed specifically for the task and needed to come together quickly to report before the schemes’ planned completion in the autumn. With £70bn of spending to examine, and significant audit risks, the team had to develop new methods and work sensitively with clients who were at risk of exhaustion from responding to the pandemic.
The study carried significant audit challenges. These were new schemes, set up at pace, in a crisis, under lockdown conditions. HM Revenue & Customs had gone from being primarily a tax revenue department to paying out large grants and supporting employment. The spend was projected to be large but unknown, and the impact was highly uncertain.
The team was acutely aware that the departments had worked flat-out since the beginning of the pandemic to implement the schemes. It knew that audit evidence could be limited by the speed of the response and lockdown conditions. Early on they identified there were likely to be some gaps in understanding the legitimacy of furlough claims, with significant risks of fraud, and that some people needing support might not get it. The team knew that they would need to work quickly before the schemes progressed too far to close information gaps.
As well as supporting transparency and accountability, the study had immediate impacts, including controls over fraud. Lessons were drawn for the government more widely on its evolving response to Covid-19. HMRC acted on the team’s recommendations and informed employees directly when their company was making furlough claims, and published the names of companies that did so.
• Covid-19 Cost Tracker Team, National Audit Office
• Fraud and Error in DWP Audit Team, National Audit Office
• GIAA and DWP Internal Audit Team, Department for Work and Pensions
• Housing Benefit Assurance Team, Department for Work and Pensions
• Internal Audit, HM Revenue & Customs
• Local Audit Code and Guidance Audit Team, National Audit Office
• MIAA contributing to the wider NHS
• SWAP Team, SWAP Internal Audit Services
Winner: London Borough of Bromley
The Council will deliver debt free property investments and other rent income combined with treasury management income of £13.8m in 2021/22 and an ongoing reduction in general fund pension costs of at least £6m a year.
London Borough of Bromley is an authority with low costs, below average council tax income and which receives low levels of grants. Because of this situation, it has turned to a strategy involving sweating its assets to help protect key services. The strategy has been implemented while managing risks and reducing pension costs.
The director of finance reviews the council’s financial strategy at least twice a year, identifying income opportunities, providing updates on investment property approaches and treasury management and investment choices.
The property investments and other rent income combined with treasury management have contributed to annual investment income of an estimated £13.8m in 2021/22. The outstanding performance of the pension fund has reduced the Council’s general fund costs by at least £6m per annum.
Over the past five years, the council has created a property fund that has seen £100m of investment without incurring any borrowing. Resources have been generated from a combination of underspends across the council’s budgets and one-off resources such as new Homes Bonus receipts. The investments have generated a yield of between 5% and 6% – the equivalent of more than £5m a year. The investments were made on a long-term basis with no need to consider any ‘fire sale’ during a recessionary period.
Treasury Management resources are around £300m each year. The council has looked to find alternatives to fixed term deposits available from banks, building societies or other local authorities. It introduced an £100m allocation for alternative investments over a three- to five-year timeframe. This represents a long-term commitment with any future depletion of treasury management resources impacting on the shorter-term lending only.
Further changes include a secured loan to a developer relating to the provision of temporary accommodation for the homeless, attracting interest rate income of 6%. Lending to housing associations has increased.
The overall approach has generated net interest earnings of 1.84% compared with the bank base rate of 0.1%, during 2020/21. The Treasury Management performance was measured as top decile (top 10%) performance compared with treasury adviser Link Asset Services’ local authority benchmark group.
On pensions, an asset allocation review of the council’s £1.3bn fund was completed in April 2017 to reflect changing circumstances and addressing significant challenges such as moving towards a cash flow negative position. The Pension Fund Asset allocation strategy is now regularly reviewed to provide resources to meet liabilities and reduce the cost to the council taxpayers.
The asset allocation strategy has delivered exceptional performance, placing Bromley on benchmark rankings of 22nd over one year, first over three, 10, 20 and 30 years and second over 30 years. The net annual return in 2020/21 is expected to be around 30%, resulting in the expectation that the fund will be one of the top performers in the country. The results of this work has resulted in the overall fund being “fully funded” (approximately 130% at present). This outstanding performance, combined with the innovative ‘gifting’ of assets to the fund has generated savings over recent years to the council’s revenue budget of £6m a year. This represents an equivalent protection from cuts to key services in order to balance the budget.
Given the financial challenges a need for continuous improvement remains and the quarterly strategy meetings helps maintain focus as well as more frequent financial monitoring enable a focus in identifying new opportunities, including disposals, as well as progress on existing plans.
• Non-Current Assets Central Expertise Team, Financial Management and Planning Division Finance Group, Department for Work and Pensions
Winner: Procurement Department, Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
A coordinated, flexible and ground-breaking procurement programme that ensured the essential delivery of a £6m hospital ward in record-breaking time – amid the turbulence and uncertainty of a pandemic and resulting in essential life-saving opportunities.
Amid the initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Wrightington, Wigan, and Leigh Teaching Hospitals NHS FT (WWL) – in partnership with NHSI NW – recognised the urgency for more bed capacity in Wigan and the wider region to treat patients. Time and delivery were critical in the pandemic.
In response, the teams came together to plan, procure, construct, equip and open a brand new £6m ward – in a project that spanned just six weeks from start to finish – an outstanding achievement.
In addition, the procurement department had to juggle the launch project with playing a key role in ensuring that personal protective equipment (PPE) and clinical equipment was available to keep staff safe and respond to the pandemic – stretching its resources to the limit.
With both challenges running simultaneously, the procurement department had to expedite plans to align the department into clinical and non-clinical (capital) categories. This enabled focus to be given to the two separate but interdependent supply chain issues, while also future-proofing the structure of the procurement department.
National guidance for staff to work at home added further complexity and, a focus was put on delivering at pace during a period of change, the team also had to ensure compliance with the trust’s Standing Financial Instructions and new national procurement rules.
The two teams delivered some incredible results during the initial period. The seven-strong non-clinical team managed the procurement and equipping of Bryn Ward in conjunction with estates and facilities colleagues – launching the 50-bed ward within the target of six weeks. As part of that process, more than 2,500 products were ordered and delivered, at a total expenditure of £875k.
The nine-strong clinical team working on the procurement of PPE and clinical supplies to ensure the safety of staff and patients ordered and managed in excess of 29,000 units of PPE, while always looking for innovative solutions to protect staff.
However, the most notable outcome was the stunning transformation of a car park at Royal Albert Edward Infirmary (RAEI) into an operational Covid-19 ward – and the huge social-value benefits this delivered at the peak of the pandemic. Bryn Ward provided crucial, lifesaving capacity at WWL to treat the most poorly patients. WWL had the third-highest number of patients within GM, and the new facility ensured many patients who live within the Wigan borough were able to be treated locality.
Recognising the detrimental impact of the pandemic on local businesses, efforts were also made by the procurement team to source PPE from local suppliers. In excess of £400,000 was spent with local suppliers during the first three months alone.
And the success story doesn’t end there. In the later part of 2020-21, the Procurement Department assisted in the delivery of two additional wards: The Community Assessment Unit (CAU) at the RAEI site and a Community Ward at the Leigh site – both providing further resilience for the Wigan borough and increasing bed capacity by 45 across the Trust.
• Procurement and Contract Management Service, North Yorkshire County Council
• The Wheatley Group’s Procurement Team, Wheatley Housing Group
• Tom Burton and Liam Horkan, Supply Chain and Equipment COVID Cell, NHS England and NHS Improvement, East of England
Winner: Cyber Resilience Centre, Department for Work and Pensions
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Department of Work and Pensions’ Cyber Resilience Centre has detected attempts by organised criminals to defraud the benefits system on a huge scale and stopped fraudulent payments from being made.
The criminal attack against the UK benefit system during Covid-19 has been the biggest ever experienced. The Department for Work and Pensions’ Cyber Resilience Centre prevented £1.7bn of organised fraud against Universal Credit during the first nine months of the pandemic. It did so by innovating rapidly to enhance and its cybersecurity capabilities to detect and prevent organised fraud on a large scale and in real time.
The CRC began providing its services to the DWP’s Counter Fraud and Compliance Directorate prior to the pandemic, believing its cybersecurity skills and expertise could be useful in identifying organised fraud that might otherwise have remained undetected.
The centre adopts five criteria for its activities: they will be lawful, proportionate to the threat faced by the public, reasonably necessary to counter that threat, effective in doing so and efficient. Amid the pandemic, the CRC’s skills became more useful as the significant increase in demand put stress on the department, which redeployed thousands of staff to assist with new claims and made changes to the process to help benefits reach those in need in good time.
Before Covid-19, CRC was generating more than 90% of CFCD’s serious organised crime team’s casework, but much of this was happening after the fact, which led to a significant amount of recovery work. Once the pandemic began, CRC began analysing the mass of data coming into the department, aiming to do it fast enough to detect organised fraud attempts in real time and prevent payments being made in the first place.
The work had success rate of close to 100% in correctly identifying organised criminal cases. The value of fraud prevented was equivalent to funding the entire departmental security team for the next 50 years. At the same time, the centre successfully fended off cyber security attacks against the Department for Work and Pensions’ payment and customer information systems.
• Shared Service Counter Fraud Teams, London Boroughs of Enfield and Waltham Forest Council
Winner: Surrey Pension Fund Team, Surrey Pension Fund
A pension fund team that managed to produce its redesigned 2019-20 Annual Report despite the significant challenges of Covid-19, delays to audit, and additional CIPFA Reporting Requirements – while still finding innovative ways to engage with stakeholders, including a ground-breaking UN Sustainable Development Goals mapping project.
The Surrey Pension Fund has a statutory requirement to publish its annual report every year, but the fund aims to always go above and beyond standard expectations in line with its mission statement: “To deliver a first-class service to Surrey Pension Fund Stakeholders through strong partnerships with scheme members, employers, the Border to Coast Pool and the wider LGPS community.”
With this in mind, and despite resource constraints within the fund – a significant increase in audit testing, sign-off delays and a strain on resources within the council’s design team – the fund persevered with the redesign of its annual report, partly in response to committee feedback and comments from the public to be more proactive in communicating its investment approach.
As per new CIPFA guidelines, this was the first year most fund managers had reported against the LGPS Scheme Advisory Board’s Code of Transparency. To overcome a number of issues relating to take up of the Scheme Advisory Board’s software, the fund created its own initiative for reporting against the code.
The fund also reported its savings analysis on its transitioned assets with the Border to Coast Pool, also in compliance with CIPFA’s new reporting requirements. This provided significant transparency in response to MHCLG’s requirements for pension funds to demonstrate fee savings, one of the main objectives set by former chancellor George Osborne for pension funds to pool their assets.
Furthermore, the fund had recently introduced a unique project mapping its investment portfolio against the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and added this to its newly designed Annual Report also. The content was intended to be relevant and engaging for non-financial individuals – to give them more of an insight into the investment strategy, as well as the team’s responsible investment approach. This was one of the most important sections of the report, according to the team, creating new levels of openness and transparency.
The fund also carried out a number of activates to raise awareness and accessibility of its report. This ranged from engaging directly with climate lobbyists around its investment approach, including speaking regularly with Friends of the Earth, Divest Surrey and other lobby groups on outcomes ranging from an SDG mapping project to seeking their feedback on how the team could further improve engagement with members and residents.
The team also engaged around 30,000 active members and 300 employers through member and employee newsletters.
The fund has received regular plaudits on its unique SDG Mapping Project, and how to build on these foundations.
Clearly, the most significant impact of the fund’s financial reporting within its annual report has been the transparency it has achieved – setting a precedent for other pension funds to follow.
The fund now plans to develop its report and its SDG measurement project further – having already identified an SDG metric provider that will allow it to report on the wider environmental, social and governance impacts of the companies it holds across its entire portfolio.
• Annual Report and Accounts Team, Department for Work and Pensions
• Customer Communications and Finance Teams, Derby Homes
• Finance, Marketing and Design Teams, NHS Property Services
• Financial Reporting Team, Worcestershire County Council
• Service Finance Team, Birmingham City Council
Winner: Cantium ICT Delivery Team, Cantium Business Solutions
Cantium Business Solutions reduced costs and the environmental impact of Kent County Council’s IT systems, while ensuring continuity of service during Covid-19
Cantium Business Solutions has managed Kent County Council’s IT estate, which has more than 8,000 users, since July 2018. Recognising that its ICT infrastructure was ageing and hardware approaching end of life, the authority chose Cantium to deliver a large-scale digital transformation programme, enabling the adoption of cloud-first principles and the achievement of efficiencies that positively impacted frontline services.
The authority needed to reduce the amount of physical infrastructure in their ICT estate to reduce overheads and risk presented by on-premise hosted services. Cantium’s brief was to migrate 625 servers, more than 280 applications and two data centres, comprised of 120 cabinets, to their new Microsoft Azure tenant in the cloud.
Cantium created a reliable and responsive solution that enabled connectivity in all locations. When Covid-19 hit, the work enabled more than 5,000 staff to move to a remote working model within a matter of hours, without interruption to critical frontline services.
As part of the digital transformation programme, Cantium successfully delivered:
• Migration from Office 2010 on-premise to Office 365 in the cloud;
• A move to SharePoint Online to reduce the need for on-premise shared drives and storage areas;
• The migration of local folders to OneDrive for Business;
• The migration of business applications into Microsoft’s Azure environment.
With this core infrastructure already in place to support remote working, when the pandemic hit, Cantium deployed numerous additional devices in response to social distancing requirements, increasing KCC’s remote working resilience and structure. It delivered several new technologies, including Office 365 functionality to support remote collaboration.
The transformation has delivered improved availability, reliability, and resilience. Helped improve teamwork and collaboration and improved employee motivation. On the financial side, the cost of upgrading and updating equipment was reduced, along with overall capital expenditure. In addition, the solution allows increased flexibility and scalability, allowing the council to respond to demand without large infrastructure cost overheads.
The programme achieved a significant environmental footprint reduction (including reduced energy costs) by only requiring 22 cabinets instead of more than 120. Existing datacentres will be significantly downsized, further reducing the costs of the council’s IT estate. Throughout the process, Cantium ensured minimal impact and zero downtime for service users, enabling them to continue working remotely and empowering them with collaboration tools and software to support them.
In a testimonial, Andy Cole, head of technology commissioning and strategy at KCC, said: “The level of service Cantium have provided during this unprecedented challenge has been second to none. Due to Cantium’s expertise in enabling remote working and business continuity, KCC’s workforce have seamlessly extended its ability to work remotely without issues or system failure. Our employees have felt supported and confident in moving to this new model, and most importantly, have been able to continue to deliver critical services to the citizens of Kent.”
Cantium is now leading the delivery of a separate transformational change for the health and social care system in Kent and Medway, enabling health and social care professionals to access a shared data record of individuals requiring care or treatment. The aim is to allow better co-ordination of care, improved clinical decision-making, faster and more efficient hospital discharge and transfers of care, and ultimately, more successful outcomes for patients.
• Camdor Global Advisors and Warrington Borough Council
Winner: Neil Doherty, Principal Finance Manager, Manchester City Council
An incredibly knowledgeable, dependable and well respected worker, Neil has shown resilience and adaptability throughout the pandemic, dealing with difficult personal circumstances while also taking on additional, unprecedented work. Through methodical research Neil has built-up expertise in numerous areas, particularly business rates and Covid-19 support schemes. The scale, complexity and impact of the work he delivers exemplifies what it means to be a dedicated local government professional.
Neil joined the corporate finance team at Manchester City Council in October 2011 as a finance manager responsible for monitoring and reporting on corporate budgets and. Within four years, he was promoted to senior finance manager with a focus on financial research. Further promotion to principal finance manager in March 2017 has seen Neil take on managing the revenue finance team and leading on budget monitoring the council’s Collection Fund.
Neil is recognised by his colleagues for delivering, day in day out, to excellent standards while keeping business as usual under control – always seeking improvements and taking on additional challenges.
In addition, Neil has achieved a number of specific objectives – all of which have helped the council to prosper, both during this unprecedented pandemic period and prior to the Covid crisis.
For example, the council and the nine other GM authorities have been part of a GM-wide business rates pool since 2014, and have successfully negotiated to retain 100% business rates growth since 2017. Neil has been instrumental in both achievements, which involved complex financial modelling, sensitivity analysis and open, clear communications. He worked closely with senior MHCLG officials, the Valuation Office Agency and Greater Manchester treasurers to understand and explain the implications of complex agreements and regulations to such effect that he’s now often sought out by other LAs for his advice.
Like many authorities, the Council has been working flat out to support businesses through the pandemic, and Neil has also been the finance lead for this unprecedented cross-function work supporting his Revenue and Benefit colleagues to effectively distribute £230m in grants and £138m in reliefs. He’s also worked tirelessly with colleagues in Work and Skills to support development of discretionary funding schemes. Characteristically, Neil has proactively taken on reporting to central government and resolving the inevitable issues.
Furthermore, Neil’s team consolidates the council’s Integrated reporting on a monthly basis, bringing together the forecast position against the £666m revenue budget, key performance indicators to measure achievement against the Council’s priorities, key workforce data and risks. This involves many stakeholders and challenging deadlines, yet is always delivered at high quality, despite competing pressures. For 2020-21 Neil typically adapted the report to give a clear picture of Covid-related pressures and income losses, giving senior officers and councillors timely, accurate information.
Neil’s dedication and commitment to driving success withing the organisation have delivered clear and tangible results. His lead on the business rates pilot means the Council retains 100% of additional business rates growth since 2013 – significant sums which support essential public services: £10.4m (2017–20) plus a £14.7m return from GMCA (2018–21).
Meanwhile, his colleagues describe Neil as “universally liked, admired, and respected” for his work ethic, proactive attitude, and commitment to Manchester and its residents.
Neil is AAT qualified and obtained the CIPFA qualification in 2017, winning the Richard Morris award for the highest mark in strategic management.
• Precious Akinmoju, Head of Strategic Financial Planning, Reporting and Analysis, Department for International Trade
• Cagdas Canbolat, Deputy Head of Corporate Finance, Westminster City Council
• Rebecca Newham, AME Forecasting, Reporting and Expenditure Team Leader, Department for Work and Pensions
Winner: Stephen Sutcliffe, Director of Finance and Accounting, NHS Shared Business Services
With responsibility for delivering finance services to more than 70 NHS trusts, while also managing the national platform through which every pound of the NHS budget is transacted, Stephen’s exceptional leadership and dedication to his workforce and the wider NHS has ensured successful and uninterrupted delivery of these critical services during Covid-19.
Heading up the largest shared service platform of its kind in Europe, Stephen has been responsible during the pandemic for the ongoing safety and wellbeing of more than 500 employees at numerous locations in the UK and India, while also ensuring that critical NHS finance services were maintained.
With more than 70 NHS provider trusts reliant on NHS SBS’s finance and accounting service – and every NHS commissioner using its national payment platform via a contract with NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSEI) – ultimate responsibility has sat with Stephen to continue providing a robust service that enables other NHS organisations could concentrate on their own clinical response to Covid-19.
The challenge has been clear. Stephen faced, for example, transferring hundreds of UK office-based staff to home-working and losing 50% of offshore workers at a week’s notice – at a time that also saw a huge increase in demand from the wider NHS. Despite such pressures, he ensured critical finance services continued without any major service disruptions to NHS colleagues on the frontline.
Stephen’s dedicated and agile response has resulted in many other positive outcomes for employees, the organisation and the wider public sector, too.
In April and May of last year alone, Stephen’s team processed 167,000 purchase orders and paid more than one million supplier invoices – worth £7.5bn – while managing an additional £46.5bn cash for the NHS. Around the same time, over the course of just one week, it facilitated £1m of urgent salary payments to new and returning NHS workers.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Stephen and his senior management team also worked alongside NHSEI to move unprecedented amounts of money to where it was needed in the NHS. This included £21bn on one day alone – an NHS record.
And not all of Stephen’s achievements during this period have been financial. He has also positively impacted an increase in the NHS SBS Net Promoter Score (NPS), measuring the advocacy of NHS customers, and Great Place to Work (GPTW), which gauges how much employees feel trusted and valued.
The GPTW rating increased from 65% in 2019 to 70% in 2020 – the organisation’s highest ever score. In 2020, NPS also reached its highest ever level, up two points on the previous year to +47.
Stephen’s impact on staff has continued to be exceptionally positive, with colleagues at all levels appreciating his approach.
Training Manager, Lisa Blakeborough, said: “Stephen’s leadership style inspires me because he engages with you not only on a work basis but also on a personal level. During the pandemic his virtual door has always remained open, he listens with intent, and uses his coaching style to encourage you to push boundaries and innovate.”
Stephen’s approach is that you can never stand still and that success comes from continually stretching yourself and your overall goals. To do this, he demonstrates that it is important to reflect, learn and act – something he clearly demonstrates in his daily work and to the others around him.
• Sara Pitt, Assistant Director of Finance (Deputy S.151), Birmingham City Council
• Sue Colbeck, Associate Director of Procurement, Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
• David Hill, Chief Executive, SWAP Internal Audit Services
Winner: Finance Group, European Social Fund Division, Department for Work and Pensions
The European Social Fund Division managed around £2bn of EU funds aimed at improving skills and education last year. It working with stakeholders to ensure that funds were paid throughout Covid-19, whilst also developing a post-Brexit successor scheme to the European Social Fund.
Prior to Covid-19, recipients of European Social Fund support were already facing substantial barriers towards employment, and the impact of the pandemic could have been catastrophic without timely intervention. The division has developed a revised way of working, showing determination and close collaboration throughout the crisis
The team introduced a range of measures to help existing projects get through the challenges arising from Covid-19. Actions included refocusing existing projects, allowing the immediate impacts of the pandemic to be addressed. Examples included adapting project activities to support food or retail supply chain demands. The division also introduced flexibilities to ensure payments continued to flow to projects experiencing delivery difficulties. It also supported the delivery of services through remote and innovative means whilst still adhering to regulatory requirements.
In collaboration with the European Commission and audit authorities, the division developed new ways of working to help deliver programmes. A working group was created with local enterprise partnerships, local authorities and the third sector to ensure that funds were committed as soon as possible. The team invested time working with partners to identify and resolve gaps in provision.
The whole division was involved in the development and delivered a revised way of working and showed determination and excellent teamwork with a significant focus on wellbeing and recruitment.
Due to the improvements made through 2020, the division was able to exceed the EC target for fund distribution by December 2020. It provided funding to projects which have helped 1.3 million participants – almost 150,000 had started employment when they left the programme by the end of Quarter 3 2020.
ESFD worked with other government departments and external partners to introduce the digital inclusion scheme to tackle digital poverty in society which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. This enabled 1,500 participants to have access to online devices so they could continue with their DWP and ESF employment and skills activity.
These achievements have significantly improved morale and pride in the team’s work. This comes on top of a focus on wellbeing, which has seen the introduction of peer groups to provide an arena for open and honest discussions. An action plan has been developed to focus on areas of concern. The division has introduced a ‘leadership & development ladder’ covering key aspects of essential learning for effective leaders including a focus on diversity & inclusion, reducing bullying and harassment, coaching, leadership and resilience.
A new ‘learning zone’ provides information on a range of topics such as digital skills and careers. New recruits have provided feedback that the team is great to work on and there is a real sense of team spirit and belonging.
Since the official EU withdrawal process began, ESFD has added a policy team charged with putting in place successor arrangements for European Social Fund to help ensure a smooth transition to the successor arrangements. It plans to assess current processes and procedures for improvements, as well as regularly reviewing team performance against objectives.
• Strategic Finance in collaboration with Finance Business Partnering and Financial Reporting Unit, Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency
• Strategic Finance Team in collaboration with Financial Modelling and Analysis Team and Finance Business Partner Teams, Department for Work and Pensions
• The Finance Function, Department for International Trade
Winner: Financial Strategy, Management and Reporting Team Members, NHS Business Services Authority
NHS Business Services Authority harnessed new tools to help manage the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.
NHS Business Services Authority is responsible for managing all revenue and capital funding streams and in excess of £35bn of funding which flows to NHS pensioners, dentists and pharmacists. The department supported the national Covid-19 response by collaborating at pace to successfully help set up more than 40 different services.
Due to the outbreak of the pandemic, the team encountered multiple challenges, including unplanned remote working, technology obstacles, and workloads doubling. It managed these while working at pace to ensure robust governance to maintain existing services. In response, the finance team developed and adopted a range of innovative tools and techniques to manage these issues – most of which will remain in place long after the pandemic ends.
In addition, the NHBSA quickly established a senior finance forum with the Department for Health and Social Care, NHS Digital and NHS England Improvement. It also created a Covid-19 reporting tool, which was adopted by peers to track spend, manage risk, and understand where agreements were needed to ensure costs to DHSC were accounted for.
Other innovations included adopting new technologies to strengthen cross-team collaboration, the rapid roll out of hardware and software for employees and a huge emphasis on colleague wellbeing. A BAME ‘lived experience forum’ was also established, alongside a flexible working programme and cross training colleagues, to help with the delivery of priority services.
The changes enabled the team to make £300m of emergency payments to pharmacies, while minimising impacts on other vital payment services. This helped to secure significant additional funding for its future strategy.
Collaborative working evolved significantly throughout the pandemic. Methods adopted included partnering training, Microsoft Teams adoption, collaborating and sharing information to overcome the lack of informal ‘corridor conversations’ by making time for each other. These changes also allowed NHSBSA to harness financial and commercial expertise to ensure business-as-usual operations, whilst delivering new services – at pace in a legally compliant, open and transparent way.
The working arrangements within the team received praise from other government officials during the height of the pandemic. Steve Oldfield, DHSC commercial director general, said that “no other central body in the health system has stood up and acted in the way the NHSBSA has in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic”.
Staff have also reported higher levels of trust and collaboration, focus on process improvements and flexible approaches to problem solving. The experience has provided confidence to the team that the overwhelming majority of its finance functions can be carried out remotely without compromising customer service, quality or key performance indicators.
• Finance Team, East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust
• Darren Lindsey, Information Analyst and Robin Solly, Financial Cost Manager, Costing Team, United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust
• East of England Finance Team, NHS England and NHS Improvement
• Finance and Procurement Team, Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust
• Finance Team, NHS Wigan Borough Clinical Commissioning Group
• Finance Team, United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust
• Financial and Workforce Systems Team, East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust
Winner: Finance Team, London Borough of Barnet
London Borough of Barnet’s finance team used freedoms achieved through insourcing to underspend on its general fund without relying on reserves for the first time in three years.
The London Borough of Barnet insourced its finance function in 2019 from private sector firm Capita. When Barnet insourced the service, it inherited a weakened control environment due to a major fraud. By working collaboratively over the last year, and with powers taken back in house, it closed 128 audit recommendations with only one still open.
The team was reorganised to create a better experience for customers, a clear career path for staff. The realignment also helped the council improve services, systems and digital, expand its CIPFA aligned graduate programme and greatly enhance financial stewardship.
Despite moving to remote working, the council established trusted relationships with customers, dramatically reducing the number of resident complaints. It also supported thousands of businesses through the grants application process. Barnet also developed a major projects function, which replaced expensive consultants, to approve major business initiatives and alternative models.
The restructure saw Barnet achieve a fully integrated finance function using accountancy and non-accountancy staff to close the 2019-20 accounts on time and deliver a balanced budget and medium-term financial strategy. Barnet was able to contain Covid-19 expenditure within the bounds of pandemic funding provided by central government, underspending on the general fund for the first time in three years without using reserves.
The finance team also made the capital programme forecast considerably more intelligent, meaning the council used internal resources before applying for external funding. The borrowing that was conducted took place the most advantageous time, for example after the Public Works Loan Board’s 1% rating drop in November 2020, which reduced costs by £3m.
The team’s approach was based on doing simple things exceptionally well, including providing transparent leadership, and creating a culture focused on staff wellbeing and providing development opportunities to keep expertise in house. Staff feedback on how the leadership team handled their welfare in the lockdown was overwhelmingly positive.
Senior officers in other departments were impressed with the finance team’s reporting and insight, which enabled services to be managed within budgets. One said: “The past 12 months have seen significant service improvement and improved working relationships.”
Insourcing enabled the department to create working practices valuing fairness, by creating a rotation approach, allowing for role swaps or professional studying, giving all staff opportunities to develop. Its development programme for 2020-22 also focuses just as much on interpersonal skills as technical.
• Finance Team, Folkestone & Hythe District Council
• Rochdale Council Finance Service including Internal Audit, Revenues and Benefits, Rochdale Council
Winner: Gwyndaf Tobias, Kyle Burgess and the Finance Team, Monmouthshire Housing Association
Monmouthshire Housing Association delivered significant financial restructuring through significant staff turnover and pandemic-related disruption.
Monmouthshire Housing Association has a small finance team which saw significant change at a senior level in 2020, with two new officers starting and one going on maternity leave. Despite the impact of Covid-19, the team collaborated to help the officers settle in, and implemented a number of major innovative developments. To do this, team members regularly offered to take on additional duties and responsibilities, helping to advance their professional development, and also allow senior officers time to focus on key projects.
These projects included an £85m deal to refinance the organisation’s entire loan portfolio, including £65m of funding from the Pension Protection Fund, the body’s first direct investment in the UK social housing sector. Under previous arrangements, MHA provided 95% housing stock as security for £45m of finance with properties valued on their existing use. The new agreement allowed MHA to provided just 40% of its properties as security for the £85m loan, leaving a large share of its properties unaffected.
The team also secured an increase in on-lending capabilities to its commercial subsidiary from £750,000 to £10m, enabling investment to support its core charitable activities, which was undeliverable under previous arrangements. MHA has also been able to deliver a new local rents policy linked to earnings, allowing the association to develop a rent setting methodology better aligned to affordability principles. This has resulted in the rents of more than a third of tenants rent being frozen, ensuring they remain affordable whilst also delivering overall rent increases to the Welsh government.
MHA has also implemented a new procurement system in the past year, alongside making significant improvements to its financial reporting.
The fact that the projects were delivered in six months by the team following the significant changes in three senior positions demonstrated determination to deliver added value for the organisation under challenging circumstances. The successful work has secured the long-term corporate health of the organisation. Over the coming year, MHA will develop new projects including a value for money strategy, business plans for flagship corporate projects and implementing an integrated payroll and HR system.
• Beverley Hiden and Naomi Inman, Rooftop Housing and Policy in Practice
• Finance Team, Stockport Homes Group
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