When the Auditor-General South Africa (AGSA) releases its annual audit outcome reports, state-owned companies (SOCs) are usually accused of being run poorly and not sticking to good governance guidelines. The numerous challenges CFOs of these organisations face – including basic upskilling of their teams to enhance the finance capabilities required to produce financial information (financial statements) that they can use it to analyse and assimilate information for their CEOs – has led the CFO of the South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL), Inge Mulder, to take the bold step to professionalise her finance team with the help of South Africa’s leading accountancy body.
Professionalising the finance teams of SOCs is not only a South African issue. According to a 2016 World Bank study on increasing professionalism in public finance management, countries still struggle to recruit, develop, and retain staff with the requisite professional skills in areas such as accounting and auditing. At the same time, the business of financial management in government and the public sector is becoming more complex.
It is partly against this background that SANRAL recently decided to professionalise its finance team with qualifications and professional designations offered by SAICA. These entry-level and mid-tier professional designations – Accounting Technician (AT(SA)) and Associate General Accountant (AGA(SA)) – are underpinned by SAICA’s Code of Professional Competence and CPD requirements, which ensures that holders of these designations demonstrate the highest level of professionalism, discipline and performance in their roles.
Explaining the decision to professionalise the finance team with accounting designations, Mulder says that there was a need for a special focus on expanding her team’s skills and abilities. ‘Our finance team is fairly stable. Most of the people who work in the team have been with SANRAL for most of their careers. They’ve been with us for a long time and didn’t necessarily get all the qualifications. For us, it was quite important to start professionalising the team. They have the right skills and we believe it was important to sharpen those skills and expand those who want to grow further.’
Mulder adds that although SANRAL is more focused on engineering, it has always encouraged its employees to pursue professional registrations. ‘In the past, we’ve pushed quite hard for people to get their professional registrations in terms of engineering and technical type of professional bodies. Two years ago, we started a special focus on expanding people’s skills and their professional abilities in other divisions.’
She says that the skills development initiative is done through SANRAL’s Technical Excellence Academy (TEA), which initially focused on dealing with engineers to get them professionally registered. ‘Now we have expanded to include other functions that are crucial for SANRAL, such as finance, environmental and more. We bring people from provinces and municipalities to be trained and registered for professional programmes. They go through a three-year training through the school and then get placed in various roles. Essentially, the school is not only for the benefit of SANRAL but to train people for roles in the country’s public sector.’
To get the ball rolling, Mulder got in touch with SAICA before the COVID-19 lockdown to formalise the process of professionalising members of her finance division. ‘I went to see SAICA to understand what it is that my team needed to do to register as ATs(SA) and AGAs(SA). SAICA spoke to the finance team to help them understand the requirements needed to qualify for these professional designations. We are now in the process of the team deciding which designation they would like to pursue. Thereafter we will start implementing.’
She adds that given the skills level of her staff, there are a number of them who could already register as ATs(SA). ‘For us, it’s not about numbers. It is more about how I can get my staff to acquire more skills, and if they want to follow the CA(SA) route they can also do that. We are exploring and seeing how far we can get with our own staff at SANRAL and then we will roll it out for external people.’
Having started to professionalise its finance team with suitable accounting, finance and business skills, SANRAL can rest assured knowing that this decision will in the long run enable them to recruit, develop and retain staff who will tackle the complexities of financial management in the public sector with great aplomb.
‘We are moving into a different age where we are no longer looking for data capturers. We don’t want people who just process the same thing over and over. We need to upskill people to be aligned with the constant evolution of financial management,’ Mulder adds.
SANRAL’s finance division has achieved 15 consecutive unqualified audits by the AGSA, and Mulder says she is confident that the decision to professionalise the division will enable them to be on track to achieve a clean audit opinion for the 2020/21 financial year.