Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

Mark Williams

Mark WilliamsMark has previously worked with PA Consulting, where his roles included coordinating PA’s property and infrastructure work, leading projects across public services, leveraging his finance, commercial and business case experience and delivering learning and development for public services clients. Before joining PA Consulting in 2012, Mark worked with Deloitte, starting in public service audit and advisory work before progressing to set up and lead their Government Finance and Accounting team.

His experience includes delivering a number of high profile training programmes, from HM Treasury’s Business Case training, to public/private partnership training for the World Bank. Mark has provided supported on the Project Leadership Programme for the Cabinet Office/Infrastructure & Projects Authority, which was focused on building the Government’s projects profession. He is currently working on the Mayor of London’s Energy Efficiency programme, and continues to work in PPPs, including helping with the upcoming exits of PFI projects. 

Mark has been a CIPFA member under bylaw 5 since 2012, and is a member of the CIPFA Government Board and CIPFA South East Regional Council.

What led you to become a CIPFA member?

I trained with Robson Rhodes from 1992-1995, who are now part of Grant Thornton. As a medium-sized firm, I got involved with a variety of audit and other finance work, including quite a lot of private sector work. However, over time, I increasingly got involved with work for the Audit Commission, as well as housing association audits, and found I really enjoyed the interesting and complex issues you have to tackle with public audit work. From there, I joined Deloitte where I carried out a lot of NHS Audit Commission work, and also carried out audit work for MHRA and the Electoral Commission on behalf of the National Audit Office. 

Given the complexity of those sectors, CIPFA was very relevant to me and I joined the CIPFA Government Board in 2009 - the obvious next step was to become a CIPFA member.

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

In the early 2000’s I was audit director for quite a few of the London teaching hospitals and that was absolutely fascinating work, in terms of the external financial audit as well as the value-for-money audit. Working in public finance, the range of issues you have to worry about is so much more involved. An emergency you might have in the private sector pales into insignificance compared to an emergency you might have in a hospital. For me, it’s just more rewarding.

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

We've done some great work and learning and development around business cases, PPPs, PFIs and so forth, including piloting the World Bank public/private partnership training in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda in 2016. That was with PA, but with CIPFA working as a sub-contractor alongside us. For me, this work was special not only in terms of visiting these countries to pilot a high profile training programme, but also in terms of just seeing how important and rewarding it was for the 60 or so attendees of that training who were genuinely interested not just in partnerships but also the wider public finance management experience from the UK. Making Partner with Deloitte was also a great milestone for me.

What have been the greatest challenges?

Working across the public sector, I am aware of the often ongoing siloed working. The lack of organisational memory is also a challenge. I tend to try to help by flagging ‘You did this 10+ years ago? These were the lessons learnt.' or 'Did you realise that a different department or local authority are doing something similar?' Pace can also be an issue, because you have to pedal really hard to get projects across the line - at times, it seems to be more difficult than perhaps it should be. 

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

Being a qualified finance professional is massively helpful when you're having finance, commercial or business case conversations and also when dealing with the private sector and investors. The CIPFA membership has been fantastically helpful when dealing with the public sector, and the network it provides is very useful. My work is centred around public and private partnerships, which is where you have that “hand shake” between the public and private sectors, so my CIPFA membership is very useful to me. We do have to have public services working with a private sector supply chain and the current COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how important it is to get this relationship right. CIPFA has such a wealth of knowledge, which is why I’m excited to be involved with them at various levels. 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve given, or been given?

The best piece of advice I’ve given is probably to go on HM Treasury's Better Business Case training, because that is a fantastic insight into how decision making at officer and civil servant level can happen.

Also, I would say that it is not unusual for public services to have tried things before, so working in that sector it is essential to look outwards, beyond the boundary of the organisation you are working in, to see what's been done before and what you might learn from it. It’s interesting to do that horizon scanning.

What advice would you give to people beginning a career in public finance?

At CIPFA South East Regional Council, we have done a series of speed mentoring events for newly qualified members, so I would say to get yourself along to one of these once we can get back to face-to-face interactions. At these events I generally approach a problem differently than some others, and would often suggest something that someone I’m mentoring wouldn’t have considered.

I would also say to take a risk – as a newly qualified CIPFA member you can afford to try something different, as you have a strong foundation to fall back on. You don't need to have a linear career development, and you can jump around a bit within that sphere. I think there's genuine value in working in the private sector or in different parts of the public sector. 

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

The London Mayor's energy programmes work with a Dutch “not for profit” organisation called Energiesprong, and they have a video about what they do to retrofit homes to net zero. What they get across in a three minute video is so much more effective than what I can probably present in hours. It’s quite Monty Python-esque as well.

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

It is a fantastic foundation, but don't just do the qualification and then reappear when you become CFO. You get out of CIPFA what you put into it, so remain involved throughout. We're now in a world where having just the one professional alignment is not enough, so it is useful to recognise that you're going to have to work collaboratively with all sorts of other professions, and it's useful to dip in and out of those other professions and have some sort of secondary alignment.

You also need soft skills; you can be the greatest technical accountant in the world, but it's no use if you can't actually communicate. I was mentoring for the Cabinet Office/Infrastructure & Projects Authority Project Leadership Programme, which includes modules on subjects such as mindfulness. I probably gained as much from mentoring as the people I mentored, in terms of speaking to a wide range of people from different backgrounds. There's a real skill around communicating complex finance and business cases to non-specialists, so it’s useful to speak to people who approach it from different backgrounds.