When the Auditor-General South Africa (AGSA) releases its annual audit outcome reports, state-owned companies (SOCs) are accused of being run poorly and not sticking to good governance guidelines. The numerous challenges Chief Financial Officers (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 South African National Roads Agency SOC Limited (SANRAL) CFO, 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 an issue exclusive to South Africa. 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 took a decision to professionalise its finance team with qualifications and professional designations offered by the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (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 Continuous Professional Development (CPD) requirements, which ensure that holders of these designations demonstrate the highest level of professionalism, discipline and performance in their roles.
Why SANRAL is encouraging staff to get professional accounting designations
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 on the team have been with SANRAL for the greater part of their careers, and didn’t necessarily obtain all the qualifications. For us it is quite important that we start professionalising the team. They have the right skills, and we believe it is important to sharpen those skills and expand those who want to grow further.”
Mulder adds that although SANRAL is more focussed 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, environmentalists 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 prior to the start of 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 AT(SA) and AGA(SA)’s. 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 AT(SA)’s. “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 basically exploring and seeing how far we can get with our own staff at SANRAL and then we will roll it out for external people.”
As it has started to professionalise its finance team with suitable accounting, finance and business skills, SANRAL can rest assured that this decision will in the long run enable them to recruit, develop and retain staff who can 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 are just there to process the same thing over and over again. We need to upskill people to be aligned with the constant evolution of financial management,” Mulder adds.
Having achieved 15 consecutive unqualified audits by the Auditor-General South Africa, Mulder says that she is confident that the decision to professionalise SANRAL’s finance division will enable them to stay on track to achieve a clean audit opinion for the 2020/21 financial year.
What is an AT(SA)?
AT(SA) [Accounting Technician] is a recognised and respected competency-based accounting qualification offered by SAICA. It is job-related, application-driven and meets the need for sound accounting and financial skills in the workplace. With ATs(SA), employers get the assurance and benefit of high quality, practical accounting skills — adding real value to finance teams.
In essence, AT(SA) is a mark of professional competence. Once trained, bearers of the designation show a solid understanding and practical application of accounting and finance skills. As a foundation phase qualification, these professionals play a key support role in finance and business, competently working across all sectors of the economy to improve organisational productivity and efficiency. The qualification enables accounting technicians to occupy diverse roles such as Accounts Administrator, Payroll Administrator, Debtors/Creditors Clerk, Payroll Assistant and Financial Accountant.
What is an AGA(SA)?
AGAs(SA) [Associate General Accountants] on the other hand, play key managerial roles within diverse sectors of the economy. Professionals who hold this qualification have successfully completed a SAICA accredited degree and a SAICA training contract or assessment to ensure they offer a strong set of technical accounting and financial skills required to navigate today’s complex and evolving business environment. They are technically-minded accountants, who have the ability to bridge operational and strategic management functions. Their expert ability to drive accountancy and financial excellence in organisations enables them to deliver results and accelerate organisational financial performance.
SAICA’s mid-tier AGA(SA) designation enables finance staff to have stronger technicaland analytical rigour to drive accounting, financial and operational excellence in organisations. They can perform various roles including the compilation of financial statements for companies, act as a commissioner of oaths, register as a tax practitioner and perform independent reviews.
For more details, visit www.saica.co.za