Prepare for the worst and hope for the best

By Gary Fielding | 23 September 2020

As chief finance officers (CFOs) we know it is up to us for leadership on financial planning. People expect a well defined plan with a clear process where we bring together technical and service considerations along with stakeholder management.

We ordinarily would have some idea about the impending financial dilemma and a good idea about what we needed to do. Of course, we could dust off last year’s plans and update them and carry out some targeted reviews of services that cause concern.

While budgeting is never a precise science we expect a sound framework and some rigour. We expect some quantifiable assessment of what the spending needs are and how that compares with funding expectations. That meant bridging a funding gap and generating savings ideas.

A few days ago I was asked about how much progress was being made by councils on budgets and longer-term financial plans and I confess I felt the most powerless in my eight years as an austerity CFO. We can only guess how this year will end; we have no provisional funding settlement beyond the next six months; there is doubt about the corporate and social responsibility; we could still be mid-COVID. The public finances are going to be pummelled among other such imponderables.

In this climate how is it possible to construct a coherent financial plan when there are so many moving parts?

I’ve tried to give myself a good talking to as I know that planning is even more important in uncertain times but I keep concluding that all we can do is prepare a range of scenarios and reactions. Only last year we were told austerity had ended, so many may not be well prepared for some tough choices. But it feels like the best approach is to prepare for the worst, hope for the best and be unsurprised with anything in-between.

Gary Fielding is corporate director of strategic resources at North Yorkshire CC and president of the Society of County Treasurers

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