Claire Gravil, Head of Finance, Direct Commissioning/COVID-19 Vaccination Programme for NHS England, North East and Yorkshire

Claire GravilClaire began her current secondment role as Head of Finance for the COVID-19 vaccination programme in October 2020. She had previously worked as Head of Finance for Direct Commissioning, with responsibility for a £2.6bn budget. She first joined the NHS on its finance graduate training scheme in 2000, having earned a first-class degree in chemistry at Bangor University.

She then worked for two years in the chemical industry, before moving into public sector finance. The three-year graduate training scheme included CIPFA membership and training and, having completed her accounting qualifications in 2003, she has remained an active member of the institute.

Over her career, Claire has gained experience in a number of finance roles in organisations across the NHS, and also enjoyed a two-year spell in local government as finance manager at North East Lincolnshire Council before returning to NHS England as Assistant Head of Finance (primary care) for the Yorkshire and Humber region in 2013. Since then, she has progressed through the organisation, becoming Head of Specialised finance for Yorkshire and the Humber in 2015, before taking on her present portfolio in 2020.

When did you first become attracted to a career in the public sector, and particularly public finance?

I don't think there was a particular point in time when I first made a conscious decision. Fortunately, I was successful when I applied to get on the NHS Finance graduate scheme and that was one of the best things that happened to me. I'm not driven by money and material possessions in my personal life, and having worked in the NHS, I don't ever imagine being able to work in a profit-making industry. I doubt I would ever work in the private sector now. I didn't necessarily plan it like that – it just happened to be the path that took me there at the time.

Now I'm very much public sector through and through – it's in my blood. I'm about protecting the public purse and ensuring the money is ethically – and effectively – spent.

What have been the highlights or biggest successes of your career to date?

Completing the NHS Finance graduate training scheme and doing my CIPFA qualification at the same time are achievements I'm really proud of. I passed all exams first time and qualifying as an accountant was a real career highlight

I've spent almost 20 years of my career in the NHS, but the most pivotal part has certainly been the past 18 months, with the COVID-19 crisis – having been taken out of my regular day job and being thrust into a completely new role, leading the programme financially within the region and being given something to run with and lead. I'm proud that it's gone so well and that I've been part of that, working with the national team to make sure we have process and governance in place.

At the same time, it's been challenging managing my personal life with a small child, home working, lockdowns and everything. But this role has been the highlight of my career. It's been hard work, it's been tiring and it's been emotional at times, and it's been lonely. But professionally, I sometimes wonder whether there's anything I could do afterwards that would be quite as significant.

One standout moment happened on a Friday during 2020, on our regular morning Teams call, when we were joined unexpectedly by the Duke of Cambridge. He was on with us for around 45 minutes. It was so humbling and so nice. That will always live with me: it was lovely to be thanked, to be asked questions about our own personal wellbeing, our own mental health, how we were coping. He was genuinely interested. That was a definite highlight.

What have been the greatest challenges both during your career and within the public finance sector as a whole?

Personally, my little boy is seven now, and I didn't appreciate how hard it was going be to juggle the job I'm doing now but also being a successful mum. That did change my direction of thinking. One of the greatest challenges is gaining professional recognition, but also being a good parent.

The greatest challenge in the public sector finance sector is that it's ever-changing. We're constantly working with new policies, new guidance, and even now we're working through the implications of the establishment of integrated care boards. Some of the biggest challenges are from the ever-changing landscape in health and social care, so part of my role is to be constantly resilient and willing to go with the change. Because often, after a couple of years of implementing change you have to start thinking differently again, and you have to be able to accept that.

I think the next couple of years are going to be really interesting in the NHS.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of working in the public sector?

It's knowing that with everything you do there's patient at the end of it, every decision you make impacts on somebody personally. And I've never lost that. Everything I do is about the patient, and that's what keeps me going, one of my key motivations. It's about the people. I love working for the NHS, and the patient is at the heart of it – and that's why I do what I do.

How has your CIPFA membership supported you in your career?

CIPFA's strongly recognised in the NHS. You only have to say you're CIPFA-qualified to get initial professional recognition. I've been on the CIPFA council for over 12 years, as well as various CIPFA boards, the CIPFA executive in the Yorkshire and Humber region, and I was one of the founding members of the National Students Forum in 2003/4. I've received so much support and friendship as part of the CIPFA family, as a professional and a volunteer. Because it's such a personable institute, the fact you can pick up the phone and talk to someone directly at CIPFA HQ is just incredibly helpful. It just feels that people in the Institute care – they want to see people succeed and have the resources they need to maximise their potential.

I've got a huge network of colleagues and lifelong friends just from being a CIPFA student and being part of CIPFA as a member. That's what I value.

What advice would you give to the people who are beginning their career in public sector finance?

Throw yourself in there – go for it! The world is your oyster, there are so many opportunities in public finance, whether it be the NHS, police, housing, central government or local authorities. Also, don't fret about making decisions early on about your career because you may very well end up somewhere else later as your career and interests develop. Enjoy what you're doing now, knowing that you're in a sector that will offer you so much opportunity. With a CIPFA qualification, you'll be so well grounded professionally that you can be anything you want to be in your career. You certainly won't be pigeonholing yourself – you can easily move between public and private sectors with a CIPFA qualification if you so choose.

Also don't forget your personal skills. You can be a qualified accountant, but you also need to develop wider skills around listening, integrity and compassion to be that rounded person in the public sector. And remember your personal values.