Would you prefer to be an expert that someone listens to?

26-07-2016

By Richard Douglas, Adviser to CIPFA central government faculty and former DG Finance & NHS at Department of Health and Head of Government Finance Profession

Experts: who needs 'em?

The comment from Michael Gove - later 'clarified' - that people in this country had had enough of experts; prompted much spluttering from experts, including accountants.

As someone who has made a reasonably successful career as a non-political expert working in the political world of Whitehall, I have a degree of sympathy both with Michael Gove and the spluttering experts - seeing both sides of an argument is either one of the great strengths of a civil servant or one of their inherent weaknesses, it depends which way you look at things.

It made me think about the role of the finance director (DG Finance) in a Whitehall Department and what makes you successful, or not as the expert chief financial adviser to a Secretary of State. As well as being Head of Government Finance Profession for almost four years, I was the senior finance professional in the Department of Health for around 14 years. 

During my time I saw dozens of DGs Finance come and go in the rest of Whitehall. Some were about for years, some for months. Some were listened to and always there at the side of the Secretary of State, some were marginalised and treated as decorative at best. Some made a difference in their departments and some didn't.

What made the difference? It wasn't technical expertise.

The best, the most successful: were not the most expert; the most technically gifted accountants or financial managers. The best were those that used their expertise in context, with real situational awareness to help politicians to meet their objectives and yes, to speak truth to power where necessary; but to do this with humility and in a way that recognised both political reality and the democratic legitimacy of politicians.

Government doesn't collect and spend money as an end itself. There is not a Ministry of Accountancy. It's done for a purpose. It's done to protect the realm, to maintain the rule of law, to help deliver economic growth, to improve well-being, support the vulnerable and deliver high quality public services. As a DG Finance you need always to remember this. You do not succeed just by balancing the budget or delivering a timely and unqualified set of Resource Accounts - you must, of course, do these things but they are not enough. You are part of a senior team including the Secretary of State that is trying to deliver a wide range of objectives. You cannot trade off performance or service delivery against money. You need to advise how best you can achieve both and where trade offs have to be made they are the job of the Secretary of State - based on your expert advice on costed options honestly presented.

As DG Finance you need to be willing to speak truth to power, where necessary. You need to be brave enough to advise robustly when a course of action may be unwise. But, if you are doing your job properly the occasions where you have to do this should be few and far between. Generally politicians do not want to do things that fail to deliver their objectives, are poor value for money, impractical, unaffordable or plain unlawful. If as a DG Finance you collect records of warnings ignored or threatened Accounting Officer directions as badges of honour you are in the wrong job.

The true badge of honour is building a relationship of trust that means that the warnings are rare but when they are given they are listened to. And, you can only do this if you recognise the world in which a national politician operates. A Secretary of State is a member of a government, a member of a political party, a constituency member, leader of a Department of State and a human being. I know of no other job that combines such high workload, personal responsibility and public exposure. 

If you offer advice without an understanding of this context then you are doomed to failure. You need to understand how the action you are advising will impact on relationships with the wider government team, the party and the Secretary of State's standing in Parliament as well as key external stakeholders. This does not mean - as people have sometimes claimed - that you dodge issues or only give the advice people want to hear. It means that how you give advice directly impacts on the likelihood it is acted on.

Third, advising with humility. Something that sometimes seemed to be missing from the experts that Michael Gove was referring to. To me there are two elements to this: both recognising the limits of your own expertise, but also recognising the expertise of the person you are advising.

Rarely as a senior person are you required to provide advice where you are 100% sure that you are right. In the world in which I operated this might be the value for money of a major transaction like a PFI scheme that had multiple variables, the affordability of a policy initiative where you had to predict and model demand and future resources, the distribution of resources best suited to deliver objectives where you would very different views from different experts. You have to clearly guide the Secretary of State - not just on the one hand this and the other hand that - providing clear guidance but in a way that is honest about assumptions and probabilities. And in giving your advice you need to recognise and take note of their expertise in the political world. How they need to handle things with their colleagues, in Parliament and the press. The best advice combines different areas of expertise.

In many ways this is no different from how you succeed as the senior finance professional in other sectors. Technical knowledge and expertise may be an essential bedrock of the job but success comes from applying this in a way that is most likely lead to your advice being acted on. Perhaps, if the experts had acted in this way in recent months we might have had a different result in the referendum.