"When there’s distrust or a lack of faith in the public sector, it’s a sign of a society in trouble…"

Mark Millar, ACCA Council Deputy President, 2019-20

Mark Millar has spent his long career battling against a huge misconception – the received wisdom, which never entirely disappears, that the public sector is somehow a burden, a necessary though regrettable nuisance, where people only work if they can’t cut it in the fast lane of free enterprise.

All nonsense, and Mark has dedicated his professional life to proving the opposite, most recently as the CEO at St Elizabeth Hospice in Suffolk, England.

He argues eloquently and persuasively that both sectors are as important to the economy and the life of a nation as the other. Success is found where a strong and vibrant commercial sector sits alongside a well-run public sector.

‘I chose to work in public health as a fresh-faced young accountant more than 40 years ago, long before I had this white beard, and I’ve never regretted it for a moment,’ he said.

‘Quite the opposite.’

Active, vigorous, vibrant 

‘The more time I have spent in the sector, with so many incredible colleagues, the more I have been convinced that it is every inch as creative, innovative and forward-thinking as private business.’

But it’s more than just an economic question for Mark.

He champions public activity as a vital element in a healthy society, and brings that advocacy to his role as deputy president of ACCA.

‘In its essence the public sector has always been the place where people come together to get things done, to make the world a better place for all, and to provide the vital services people need.  

‘We need an active, vigorous, vibrant public sector more than ever,’ he said. 

Civilised and caring

‘That’s because I believe that investing in civic projects and supporting services which benefit all people is the mark of a civilised and caring society.’

This matters even more now, when the rhetoric against the worth of publicly-funded services is ramping up more fiercely than ever in some parts of the world.

‘We know from bitter experience in history that when there’s distrust, or a lack of faith in the public sector, it’s a sign of a society in trouble. Wherever we’ve seen leaders declare that the public sector is rotten, corrupt or incapable of serving the people, we’ve seen a weakening of democracy, a slide to tyranny and restrictions on freedom.’

First lines of defence 

‘That’s how important a strong public sector is for me.’

Mark says that accountants can serve as the front line in the defence of civic values.

‘We all know that corruption can exist in all societies and in all forms of economic activity, and that’s why professional accountancy makes such a vital contribution to public life. It sets an example, lays down standards and serves as a watchdog in calling out corruption and the creaming off of public funds.  Those of us who work in the public sector hold particular positions of trust and need to be role models for our standards, ethics and behaviour.

Leadership and standards

‘My experience has shown that professional accountants really grab hold of the idea that there is a purpose in what they do, and in what they contribute to the public good. 

‘That’s what drives them - to get the best value they possibly can out of the public purse. 

‘As business owners increasingly look for broader benefits than simply profit, and the use of public money comes under ever increasing scrutiny, the skills required in each sector become increasingly interchangeable. Public sector accounting is a job and a career well worth pursuing and deserves to attract its fair share of talent.

"It’s serious, demanding and difficult work, but I know from my own life that it is fascinating and endlessly satisfying"

‘I believe that even societies and nations which put the free market and private enterprise first in their economic models must still be based on a strong public sector, where private profits help sustain a good environment; infrastructure that works; and public services which make a civilised and happy society for all citizens.

‘I think that the battle to defend public value, to maximise the spending power of the public purse, is going to be such an important theme in the next few years.

‘It’s serious, demanding and difficult work, but I know from my own life in the public sector that it is fascinating and endlessly satisfying.’