Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

Carolyn Williamson, CIPFA President

Carolyn WilliamsonCarolyn is the deputy chief executive and director of corporate resources for Hampshire County Council. She is responsible for the corporate services shared partnership arrangement, which covers Hampshire County Council, Hampshire Constabulary, Hampshire Fire & Rescue Service, Oxfordshire County Council, and the London Boroughs of Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster City Councils.  

Carolyn is also the chief financial officer for Hampshire County Council and the Hampshire Pension Fund, and she is responsible for Hampshire County Council’s IT service, leading on digital strategy implementation for the council.

Carolyn is CIPFA president for the year 2019/20 and she has been CIPFA qualified since 1991.

What led you to become a CIPFA member?

It was while working for Grampian Health Board in the finance team. At that time the health sector exclusively trained CIPFA accountants and therefore the opportunity to train was CIPFA only and it was through directed private study; 60% home study with 40% classroom attention.

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

I knew I wanted to work in finance/banking, something with numbers. As I was completing my accountancy qualification at college I was applying for jobs and I was offered a finance officer role in the NHS, with the Grampian Health Board.

Initially I didn’t choose the public sector over the private sector – my first job just happened to be in the public sector. But throughout my career, whenever I have had opportunities to consider a move to the private sector, I’ve realised that is not the direction I want to take. I prefer the ‘public benefit’ aspect of working in the public sector.

Throughout my career I have had significant job satisfaction knowing I am supporting and enabling colleagues delivering front-line services to the community and in particular to vulnerable individuals. For me, that is really rewarding.

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

For me, up to this point, there are three things that stand out.  

First was the 1996 local government reorganisation across Scotland. This was a massive change programme, encompassing all our elections, re-applying for jobs and a major structural change of local government from two-tier to unitary across the country. And we only had one year to prepare. It was my first large scale change programme and it was going live on 1 April 1996 whether everyone was ready or not.

Then, in 2006, came another massive change programme with the Southampton City Council/Capita Partnership which outsourced the corporate centre of Southampton City Council, and secured the necessary IT investment to support a new operating model. Negotiating a new contract with a private sector partner was a new and challenging experience for me, coupled with the TUPE transfer of most of my staff to Capita.

Finally, the Hampshire County Council shared services partnership in 2014. Austerity provided the impetus in Hampshire for three public sector organisations to choose to share a corporate centre. Hosted by Hampshire County Council, with partners Hampshire Constabulary and Hampshire Fire & Rescue, the partnership centred around providing a self-service operating model and the TUPE transfer of all staff involved in HR and finance. The financial arrangement is a cost sharing model which ensures open and transparent partnership behaviour, and since 2014 the partnership has since expanded to include Oxfordshire & three London boroughs, supporting 120,000 staff across all partner organisations. This is the largest arrangement of its kind in the public sector.

What have been the greatest challenges?

Again, I’ll choose three.

In 2001, I was brought in as Inverclyde Council’s new Director of Finance to turn the finance service around. My role was not just about ensuring sound financial controls and governance – my team was lacking confidence and I needed to re-engage them. The end of the first year saw us achieve an unqualified external audit report, which was the accolade the team needed to confirm they were of the expected high standard of a finance service. I learned such a lot about my capability, strength and resilience during this period.

Fast forward to 2010, and the next ten years of austerity. ‘Relentless’ is the word which comes to mind, a never-ending focus on driving down net revenue cost in response to government funding cuts – whether that is reducing expenditure or increasing income. Public sector organisations’ focus has been about developing two-year budget plans, giving us time and capacity to deliver transformation of services safely and using reserves wisely to invest in our change programmes and buy ourselves time through cash flow funding. A very successful formula but the impact of COVID-19 will undoubtedly undermine our financial resilience.

Which brings me to 2020. COVID-19 is an unexpected crisis on top of already very fragile finances across local government – all of which is undoubtedly a potential recipe for disaster. The initial COVID-19 period was a swift move into full on response mode; for me that included a raft of HR and IT policy issues, including home working, furloughing, pausing sensitive casework and a significant number of financial decisions I needed to take due to a halt to the political decision-making framework, while we awaited government changes to allow virtual meetings.

I doubt anyone knows what the ‘new normal’ will look like, as a consequence of COVID-19. All I know is that we will not go back to the way we were before. I certainly think we have learned a lot over a relatively short period about the ability to work remotely from each other but stay almost as connected as we were ‘in the flesh’ through the deployment of digital technology and particularly through deploying, for example, Microsoft Teams.

How has being a CIPFA member supported you in your career?

To me there is an underlying confidence to be gained from being CIPFA-qualified; for becoming an accountant in the public sector, there is no more relevant qualification. Plus being part of CIPFA opens up a wide network of like-minded professionals to link with and share the positive and challenging moments.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given? And by who?

To always ‘Do the right thing and stand firm’. Having left the health sector upon qualifying with CIPFA and moving to my first local government role as head of accountancy, my boss, the then assistant director of finance, gave me this advice – and I still live by it.

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

Be prepared for a very rewarding but challenging career. You need to look at the ‘public benefit’ as being part of the public sector.

What book/film/podcast would you recommend to anyone working in public finance?

I recommend the 19 May CIPFA webinar, Local government in the age of COVID-19: how to deal with short term cash crises. Not because I am one of the three panelists, but because it is acutely relevant to the here and now and will be part of a pivotal moment between local and central government regarding funding the financial consequences of COVID-19.

What would you say to somebody thinking of becoming a CIPFA member?

Absolutely go for it! It is hard work to become qualified, but it shouldn’t be easy if it is to be valued as a qualification. You will never regret the decision.