A series of ACCA events across the country have gathered members’ views on the opportunities and challenges faced by accountants and their organisations
This article was first published in the October 2018 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
ACCA has been all around the country over the past few months to find out more about what’s keeping members awake at night. The meetings, involving 172 members in 13 different locations, looked at issues affecting members in practice, the public sector and in business.
Members in practice held some of the strongest views, particularly – and perhaps predictably – about HMRC performance. They complained that trying to unwind problems with the taxman is ‘practically impossible’, leading to unchargeable costs and client relationship difficulties.
One of the main criticisms of HMRC was reserved for its ‘inconsistency’ in, for example, the treatment of clients, penalties, helpline responses, speed of refunds and debt recovery. HMRC’s helpline is considered very poor in all regions, and its ability to manage the Making Tax Digital (MTD) initiative is an ongoing worry for practitioners, particularly if the taxman ends up getting sidetracked by Brexit.
Among the few positives that emerged from the conversations about HMRC were the helpfulness of PAYE compliance officers and the operation of its alternative dispute resolution service.
As for MTD, members were also concerned about clients attempting to manage the accounting software requirements. This hasn’t always gone well, practitioners said, with some warning that accountants will be left to pick up the pieces when clients go through their tax year-end reconciliations. Significant workflow issues ahead are expected.
Recruitment and retention are also on practitioners’ minds. Larger practices and industry are offering higher wages, while some staff are unwilling to put in the time and effort to progress, and those who do are thought unlikely to stick around.
A key issue raised by members in practice was understanding the skills needed by accountants in the future. Automation is pushing practitioners to assess the value they offer clients and may lead them to revise their service offering. This in turn affects how practices will be structured and the skills staff will need. The ability to hold on to key staff is therefore crucial, with firms seeing the need for flexible working practices as likely to be vital to the retention of talent.
Business and FS
Beyond Brexit’s uncertainties – where members in business said it was a case of ‘the show must go on’ – the big worry is the freedom from regulation enjoyed by the digital businesses disrupting financial services. By contrast, traditional financial services (FS) businesses are having to put in a huge amount of resources to deal with regulatory change, particularly in the insurance sector with the advent of IFRS 17, Insurance Contracts.
Big data is becoming more important, automation less so where validation will require human intervention. Employers are encouraging finance staff to be more analytical, commercial and forward-looking – and to keep updating their skills. Organisations must also update their working environments, with even banking experiencing the need for flexible working.
Internal audit members said the lines between risk management and internal audit are blurring. This helps internal auditors to be seen more as business partners but can create conflicts of interest – one attendee has control over the risk register as well as internal audit. Nonetheless, members said internal audit is regarded as the most risk-aware part of the business.
While internal audit is being asked to undertake more informal health checks and fewer formal audits – aligning the function more with business objectives – there is still concern that boards fail to appreciate the role of internal audit. Demonstrating internal audit’s relevance while managing the expectations of all stakeholders and keeping up with technology was described as a key challenge. Members said there is still little take-up of data analytics tools, with many sticking with Excel to produce reports.
As tech complexity grows and cybersecurity rises up audit committees’ agendas, IT audit is a growing area, although IT auditors are still regarded as lacking operational knowledge of the business.
Members in the health sector talked about a lack of financial expertise in NHS organisations, with transformation programmes making the situation worse. Larger NHS organisations, they warned, can drain the best staff from smaller bodies, and finance struggles to bring in new people.
In the public sector in general, broader and softer skills are in demand. Mentoring and communication skills in particular are desirable, particularly in the health sector, where financial reporting can help clinicians make value-based decisions. However, there was criticism of a tendency in the NHS to ‘label’ roles and functions.
Members acknowledged that devolution in the health service has created new roles and a chance to diversify, but they see a disconnection between these roles and wider work.
What can ACCA do?
Members across the board said they want ACCA to support the development of their soft skills, including through CPD. They also want CPD training in their sector or specialism. In fact, more guidance generally was called for. This content doesn’t need to be technical, but practical and business/sector-focused.
Members identified a number of huge challenges in maintaining their relevance in a world that is evolving rapidly around them. But they also felt there are opportunities to grow and build broad skillsets and great careers in accounting.
While there was universal positivity about ACCA, members also expect it to support them in training and development, content, and influencing stakeholders and society.
Kevin Reed, journalist
"Members across the board want ACCA to support the development of their soft skills, including through CPD"