I’ve never had a career master plan

by Emma Knowles

01 October 2018


Emma Knowles, HFMA head of policy and research, started her career in NHS finance after graduating. She first got involved with the HFMA in 1996 and in 2013 she became the association's head of policy and research. Her work, and that of her team, is vital for the HFMA and all its members. Their efforts often feed into national policy making, while the publications they produce support NHS finance professionals across the country in their day-to-day jobs. 

We spoke with Emma about her NHS career, her dog and the beautiful knitting she is famous for in the HFMA HQ. 

How did you start your NHS finance journey?

I’ve never had a career master plan. I enjoyed maths and economics at A level, which led me to a degree in accountancy and finance. After I graduated I was sure that accountancy was not for me. But under pressure to find a job as quickly as possible, I applied for and got a job as an NHS trainee management accountant. My plan was to do the job until I worked out what I wanted to do with my life, but I found that I really enjoyed it and the people I worked with were great. I worked for a couple of years at a health authority and then a couple more at an NHS trust while I completed my CIPFA studies.

When and how did you start working for the HFMA?
In 1996 I moved out of the NHS to work for CIPFA. At the time the HFMA and CIPFA’s health directorate were one and the same thing. For a short period of time I was responsible for the HFMA newsletter, the association’s accounts, membership, supporting a number of the committees and also carrying out policy and technical work. At that point I think there were only four or five of us working solely on HFMA activities. What struck me then – and it is still the case now – was the amount of time and energy HFMA members devote to the association and their genuine fondness for it.

Where else have you worked?
Things at CIPFA changed when they parted company with the HFMA and I was moved to CIPFA’s newly formed policy and technical directorate. My focus was expanded to cover health, central government and social care. I was shortly looking for new challenges, and keen to focus solely on health, I started working for the Audit Commission in 2000. By the time I left in 2012 – as a result of the abolition of the Commission – I was responsible for the Commission’s national health studies programme and was also the financial management technical lead for all the areas covered by the Commission. Throughout my time at the Audit Commission I did my best to support the HFMA, by writing briefings and articles, being a committee member and by attending conferences and events. I also benefitted hugely from the HFMA networks I developed.

Why did you return to the HFMA?
Luckily for me, the abolition of the Audit Commission coincided with the HFMA’s desire to expand its policy and technical team. I was also looking to reduce my working hours and move to Cornwall. HFMA’s policy and technical staff are based at home and so it all fell into place. I was surprised how much the association had changed over the years, but there was much that was the same. Meeting the needs of members is still at the core of the organisation, as is the level of support provided by members. One big difference is the range of activities that we do has increased, particularly with the new qualification.

What do you like most about your role?
The variety and the people. I generally have several different projects on the go at the same time. Some projects last for several months, others are shorter and the variety provides challenge and stimulation. I’m also lucky to work with fantastic people and that includes colleagues at HFMA and FFF, trustees, members, as well as at the national bodies and stakeholders.

How do you relax when you are not at work?
I’ve got a flatcoated retriever called Denzil who needs lots of exercise, so I do a fair bit of walking. I enjoy knitting, which I find really relaxing. I’ve recently moved to a house with quite a large garden, trying to keep it under control is taking up a lot of time, but I wouldn’t say it was relaxing!

And finally, why should people join the HFMA?
I am of course slightly biased, but I think the HFMA is really good value and provides much needed support for NHS finance professionals. From providing networking opportunities, to the HFMA qualification and our policy and technical work, there really is something for everyone.