Ask the educators: public sector

Mar 01, 2019

The modules and examinations students take leading up to the public sector elective help develop students in a range of competencies that are important for the roles of steward, enabler, innovator and business partner. Development in relation to these roles is continued in the public sector elective, but the most important aspect for students to understand is that of a leader in public services. It is this public sector leadership competence that we are analysing and developing during this elective.
Strategic financial management

The focus of this elective is the strategic financial management issues facing those working in, managing and leading finance functions within public services. We are not just looking at the standard ‘one-year revenue budgeting’ approach; we are exploring the medium- to long-term restrictions of our funding mechanisms and acknowledging that the decisions we take in the present have consequences for years into the future. 

This elective also focuses on financial management issues affecting a range of public service organisations – those funded by taxation and those funded by other means – including government departments, agencies, local government, health bodies, universities and other educational institutions. 


The private sector profit-driven approach has a narrow range of stakeholders – mostly shareholders, senior management team and debt holders. Leaders in public sector organisations have a much wider range of stakeholders to satisfy (taxpayers, in particular) who demand transparency, accountability and value for money every time funds are spent. The public sector elective explores all the main sources of finance that public sector organisations are restricted to as well as how financial strategy develops to satisfy the competing priorities of all these diverse, demanding stakeholders.

Financial competence

Although the public sector elective does have a lot of additional “public sector knowledge” for students to learn, the focus of the examination will be on how the candidates bring that knowledge to bear on case study material, i.e. drilling through the materials to identify the key strategic public sector issues and then presenting clear and reasoned discussions. 

Real world approach

Whatever the issue, the students are potential financial leaders of the future and, in line with the expectations of Chartered Accountants Ireland, they must provide their management team (and those demanding stakeholders) with strategic financial direction. It is this financial competence that the public sector elective is all about. 

After identifying the main strategic issues in the case study, the candidates should be thinking about how they are going to formulate a response to the examiner – they should be writing their responses as if it is the real world and they are providing strategic direction to their senior executive team. In the real world, you fully discuss the issue, outline the advantages and disadvantages, present arguments for and against, use supporting facts and analysis, and then reach an unbiased, definitive conclusion. 

In the real world, you are the expert who is expected to advise senior management on all things financial, including the current issues and consequences of (good and bad) financial decisions.

Your approach to the exam in August should be similar. The workbooks contained within the materials will only give you the basic knowledge required, and therefore it is very important that you read outside the materials so that when you get to the exam, you can quote examples that are relevant to what is being asked. Candidates need to write with a confidence that comes from being well read; in preparation for the final examination, you must be up-to-date with all the current issues affecting public sector organisations. 


Revision for this public sector elective is not something that can be crammed in the two weeks before the exam. This needs constant preparation, just like a fully qualified accountant approaches their work in the real world.

Philip McConn is a Public Sector educator for Chartered Accountants Ireland.