Voices from Accenture Public Service


“Innovation” has moved from a buzzword in social services to part of the everyday narrative. While the case for change is evident and the will to innovate is strong, agencies are often held back by a culture of risk aversion and procedural compliance. We learned from Accenture’s social services innovation study that leaders dedicate a substantial budget toward innovation, develop a clear business case and manage for outcomes.

From programmes to people

The challenge is that many agencies aren’t built to manage for outcomes. They are set up to administer certain policies and programmes, with a complex web of eligibility and entitlement criteria, and then build a whole organisation around those programmes. Most acknowledge the need to be human-centric, data- and insight-driven and collaborate with the broader ecosystem. The inherent paradox is that shift to market-based provision diffuses lines of accountability and responsibility (no one throat to choke).

The elevation of finance

The CFO and finance function hold the key to enable the agency to pivot to these new ways of working. Accenture’s analysis of social services innovation leaders identifies finance—along with skills, impact measurement and ability to scale—as one of four key enablers that cultivate an environment ripe for innovation.

Why does the CFO have such a critical role in managing for outcomes? The reality is that we can talk all we want to about innovation, culture and technology—all of which are critical, of course. But if agencies do not incent people the right way and allocate the right resources, these big, bold ideas often go nowhere.

With control of budgets and an enterprise view of data, the CFO owns the levers that public agencies can use to drive new behaviours and horizontal investments. The finance function has influence over how people work, and how programmes are administered, monitored and measured and can thread an outcomes mindset and discipline through all of these activities, including across interactions with ecosystem partners.

For this to happen, finance in social services agencies must evolve. An Accenture survey of social services CFOs reveals their appetite and ambition for change.

The results are telling. Finance leaders are ready, willing and able to take on an expanded—and far more strategic—role that strengthens their organisation’s ability to manage for outcomes. They are doing the following:

  • Driving new value. Forget bean counters, finance leaders are making bold moves as strategists. A stunning case in point is this. Social services CFOs are more focused than their private sector peers on identifying and targeting areas of new value across the organisation—83 percent say it is a major focus. In essence, finance leaders are embracing a broader remit that has them identifying new value for the organisation. For example, 80 percent are focused on preparation for volatile future scenarios. The same percentage is targeting areas of new value across the ecosystem. And 67 percent are providing insight into organisational performance.
  • Leading digital transformation. Social services CFOs want to take a leading role in the digital transformation of their organisation. Most (87 percent) think that finance should be involved at the outset in investment decisions about new enterprise technologies. And 73 percent think the CFO is best positioned to lead approaches using digital to improve enterprise-wide performance. Who better than finance to determine the return on investment and establish the business case? Finance will have to address some barriers, which include a culture of risk aversion that makes it difficult to green light more experimental digital technology investments.
  • Balancing the pace of change. Change in social services finance will be more an evolution than a revolution. Most CFOs agree that their organisation is not yet moving at the optimum pace to drive enterprise-wide value, and that better collaboration and more cross-functional working is needed. Social services CFOs cite organisational road blocks like silos and embedded processes, lack of digital skills, issues with data quality and data availability, and too much time spent on traditional versus transformation finance tasks as the top barriers to evolving finance.
  • Playing the long game. For Social services CFOs to punch above their weight as strategic advisors, leaders must have an innate ability to envision a new future—not just for the finance organisation, but for the agency as a whole. Fortunately —the top skill to be a successful CFO. This long-term vision must include an ability to be more agile and responsive as well as the necessary rigor to establish accountability and credibility among citizens for how public monies are being invested to address social challenges.

Watch for more to come

Stay tuned for future blogs where I will explore more insights from our survey of social services CFOs, including the pivot to smart digital and data and talent. In the meantime, I invite you to learn more about the survey findings.


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