Date posted: 04/11/2022

Challenges of finance for the public good in New Zealand

Three decades of experience in the public service equipped Fergus Welsh FCA for a leadership role in the Ministry of Health during the pandemic.

In brief

  • Starting in the New Zealand Audit Office laid the technical foundation for his career.
  • Leading the health ministry’s financial management, he collaborated with other ministries during the pandemic.
  • His varied career illustrates how the public sector is an attractive place for the finance leader of the future.

Fergus Welsh FCA doesn't shy away from a challenge. As Chief Financial Officer (CFO) at New Zealand’s Ministry of Health, Manatū Hauora, he’s played an important role in its financial management responsibilities during the COVID-19 public health response. 

“Throughout my career, I’ve taken a broader view than just finance. Consulting and collaborating with officials across different disciplines enables me to understand the wider impact of decisions.”  
Fergus Welsh FCA  

Fergus Welsh FCA

He had plenty of experience to draw on with 35 years in the public service working in various financial management roles, 22 years of which have been in CFO roles. After the 2011 earthquake which devastated Christchurch, Welsh,then CFO and Chief Accountant at the Treasury, Te Tai Ōhanga, was involved in supporting aspects of the earthquake response. 

“It’s been fascinating and a valuable experience to be at the centre of some of the country’s major decisions, bringing a finance lens to the situation,” he says. “Sometimes you have to be able to operate with ambiguity and must learn to be comfortable being challenged with new things, but that’s helped me grow professionally and personally.”  

Welsh started his career in the mid 1980’s as an auditor working for the New Zealand Audit Office (now Audit New Zealand Mana Arotake Aotearoa). This laid the technical foundations to his understanding of systems and work processes, gaining management skills supervising audit teams across a variety of assignments.  

He’s especially grateful to the senior managers who shared their own experiences and wisdom. They took an interest in his career, offering him new opportunities through secondments and projects.  

Welsh also held senior management roles in the Ministry of Economic Development (which was subsequently merged with other agencies and renamed the Ministry of Innovation, Business and Employment, Hīkina Whakatutuki).  

“Throughout my career, I’ve taken a broader view than just finance. Consulting and collaborating with officials across different disciplines including policy and operational areas, ministers and chief executives, enables me to understand the wider impact of decisions,” he says.  

His leadership skills became particularly important as he led the health ministry’s financial management during New Zealand’s COVID-19 public health response and his strong relationships across the public service held him in good stead in this time of crisis.  

“Our response required decisions to be made when we didn’t always have all the information at that time, but we worked across the government, consulting with Treasury, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Audit New Zealand and district health boards among others to both share information and formulate the best plan we could,” he says.  

He also appreciated the support of his CFO cohort during the early stages of the pandemic response, and valued the informal check-ins and subsequent secondments of staff from other agencies. 

"Responding to COVID-19 has provided a valuable opportunity for my team to challenge, change and streamline how we do some things and look at how we can improve the timeliness of decision-making, but still ensure we have good processes around them,” he says.  

Employees now have increased flexibility to work in the office and remotely and a heightened awareness of others' wellbeing to support that good work-life balance, he says. “My team has ensured we continue to have regular check-ins and stand-up meetings, to celebrate successes and make sure they’re going well,” he says.  

The varied work that accountants can get involved in makes the public sector an attractive place for the finance leader of the future, Welsh says. While the remuneration for accounting roles in the private sector may usually be higher, the rewards in the public sector are many. 

“The trade-off is that you can have a wide-ranging career with lots of challenges and variety. You could be involved in developing advice to consider funding a big infrastructure project through systems reform, and you're doing something for the public good,” he says. 

Exploring the future of senior finance leaders in the Public Sector

Find out how government organisations have adapted and responded to the pandemic, and how it will impact their future in a joint report with ACCA.

Read the report

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