CPA Awards & the Public Service

I find myself on the Chartered Professional Accountants Awards Nomination committee. We are responsible for identifying individuals who are eligible to receive one of the following awards:

Recognition Sans the Public Service

These awards represent an acknowledgement of high achievement amongst Alberta accountants.  From my very brief insight into the process, there is a good vetting mechanism and the individuals receiving the awards are deserving.

However, there is a glaring gap.  There is a noticeable absence of nominees from the Public Service.  That is, accountants from the federal, provincial, municipal, agency or indigenous organizations are simply not nominated.  This was not just an imbalance – this was a total lack of both nominations and awards for people working in this sector.  Why is it that CPAs who work for accounting firms and in for-profit industries are better represented?  In this blog I am going to present my initial ruminations but also an action plan to improve this situation.

Perception of Value

Many of the nominees and recipients work for accounting firms.  It is not surprising that this industry receives a disproportionate number of awards.  Accountants provide professional services (audit, financial statement preparation, tax, advice, etc.) that are expensive.  Worse still, these services are ephemeral or without substance.  This willingness to pay for a service that is nearly invisible to the consumer is what economists call perceived value.

That value is easier to understand and accept for the consumer if the person providing the service was an early achiever, has one or more distinguished awards and perhaps even has one more F’ing letter in their designation.  Awards have a real and tangible value to an accountant working in public practice.  That is not to suggest that awards are undeserved, the awards are just more valued by this industry.

A person working for a for-profit organization has an interest in differentiating themselves from their competitors for the next CFO or VP of finance position.  An award or extra letter may not be the deal breaker, but it does add some prestige, cache and respectability to a resume for a job paying six or seven figures.

Pity the Public Servant

Then there are accountants who work in the public service.  They too want to be seen as early achievers, distinguished or have extra letters… or do they?  I suggest they do not.  Accountants in general tend to be a conservative lot and this is compounded by a learned aversion to limes and light on the part of public servants.

The CPA nomination committee are not the only ones challenged to drag the typical public servant out of their shell.  Internal awards for public servants often go to those who bother to apply and not necessarily to those most deserving.

How to Award Those Who Want to Stay Hidden: Up, Down then the Middle

This is why I am on the awards committee, to overcome the aversion to awards and get more public servants their just deserts (… or even an entire award dinner!).  My plan: work from the top down, bottom up and then try to tackle the mushy middle.

1. The Top

The first stop, Deputy Ministers, Assistant Deputy Ministers, Chief Finance Officers or Vice Presidents of Finance/Administration.  Most of these individuals have had a diverse and stellar career that makes them more than suitable to earn a FCPA.  Many will have also shown leadership such that they, and members of their team, could be eligible for a Distinguished Service Award.

The benefit at starting at the top is that these individuals have positional and moral authority to show that it is okay to attract and accept such accolades.  In other words, a senior person receiving a well-deserved award gives permission for the rest of the organization to accept praise as well.

2. The Bottom

Public Servants are excellent mentors which is the next focus: accountants early in their career.  In some cases, these are the hot shots but often they are also the stalwarts who have stepped into the breach of a retiring person and are carrying the ball bringing enthusiasm and technical skills to the organization.

Like those at the top, it is often easier to provide accolades to a mentoree than a peer. Unlike the Top focus, receiving an award can help to break the ice for a young professional so that they are more willing to receive and nominate future recipients.

Giving an award to a millennial CPA also meets an often identified need of this generation for gratification and assurance of a job well done.  While waiting for an award ceremony may not be instant gratification, hopefully the enduring nature of the award helps to keep a new staff member engaged and employed in the public sector.

3. The Mushy Middle

Then there is the rest of us.  The above two audiences will take a few years to tackle before starting to chip away at the analysts, supervisors, managers and directors in the middle of the sandwich.  The middle includes people like me, who see having to fill out award paperwork as a bother when compared to young children, aging parents, impossible work assignments or neglected hobbies.

What are the strategies to help the middle?  Firstly integrating pre-existing award programs of an organization to external organizations such as the CPA.  Thus an award given out for designing prepaid-debit card given to Albertans affected by floods or fires may require next to no additional paperwork to submit to the society.

Acknowledgements of good work done on programs or policy can be similarly extended to CPA accolades.  As an added bonus, work done here can be potentially leveraged by other professions such as engineers or lawyers who are likely also struggling to award their public service members.

Next Steps

The first step is to become more familiar with the CPA awards and even getting one or two across the finish line.  Next is to reach out to decision makers and leaders through all levels of governments to understand their perceptions and potential solutions of the problem.  The implement and measure an increase (hopefully) in nominations from the public service.

Should be fun for the next few years… stay tuned for updates.