Rob Whiteman retirement interview

Rob Whiteman CBE is retiring as Chief Executive of CIPFA in June 2024 after more than ten years at the helm of the Institute. Here he answers a selection of questions put to him by CIPFA members, stakeholders and staff.

What attracted you to the role of CEO at CIPFA?

I was attracted by the opportunity that CIPFA offers to improve public services. I’ve been a public service leader in both local government and central government, and I’d been involved with the Institute as a volunteer earlier on in my career and had served on CIPFA Council. When the opening came up for Chief Executive, I felt really attracted to the role because I could see the opportunity for CIPFA to improve public services by continuing to improve financial management and accounting.

If you had to describe your decade at CIPFA in three words, what would they be?

‘Confident’ – I believe the Institute is more confident now in its role. ‘Successful’ – we have grown both internationally and within the UK. And ‘challenging’ – CIPFA hasn't been afraid to speak truth unto power, to say some challenging things that might not be universally popular. As the leading professional body in public finance, we need to be challenging, and I think we’re respected for that.

What have been your greatest achievements/successes during your CIPFA career?

I’m pleased that the Institute has a good voice. We represent the profession and our members, but a lot of people who may be members of other bodies also look to CIPFA to provide the voice for the public sector profession. Any accountancy body can talk about the public sector, but only CIPFA can talk for it. I am very proud of the way that we’ve developed the strength and credibility of our voice.

The public finance world has changed a lot over the last ten years since you’ve been CEO. Which changes do you think have impacted CIPFA the most? 

One of the biggest changes is around skills. The core skills that one acquires in one’s early career remain vitally important, because they provide a sense of the scope of being a professional. Over the past ten years, the focus on lifelong learning has certainly become much more important – an acknowledgement that the skills you acquire at the beginning of your career don’t sustain you through your whole career. One needs to acquire new skills because there is so much happening in the public sector, and the pace of change is increasing. That has impacted on CIPFA – it’s made us more focused on new CPD products and developing accredited learning for the new skills public finance professionals need for their jobs.

Over the next ten years, for example, as well as financial reporting, there will be a growing emphasis on non-financial reporting in areas such as environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG). Accountants and auditors will have an important role to play as assurers that organisations prepare and publish non-financial data. That’s probably the biggest change I’ve seen in my career, and it’s happening now. That acceleration in change places more pressures on organisations to have a wider set of skills.

In your opinion, what have been the biggest challenges CIPFA has faced over the past decade?

The challenge of being relevant and to embrace change so that we are able to meet the demands of our members and the organisations we serve – and I think we have responded to that challenge. We are a respected technical body that is a standard setter, and the pressure on standard setters to produce good information is considerable. But there’s been a growing sense over the past ten years that accountancy is now about a lot more than simply preparing the accounts. We have had to develop business partnering skills, for instance. We have to be at the elbow of decision makers to help ensure there’s good resource management. Now we have to help ensure that we can monitor and manage climate and other ESG risks. The pace of change will continue to be a challenge for CIPFA, and I see that as a good thing.

What’s the one thing you would have done differently as CEO?

When I joined CIPFA, it essentially operated as two organisations – the charity, or the Institute, and the business side – each with its separate governance structures. As CEO, I brought them together within a few years into one organisation. Looking back, I would have tried to do that even quicker because CIPFA’s great strength is being able to join together the elements of what we do in a multidisciplinary way – being a charity that sets standards, that trains and qualifies accountants, and then supports public sector organisations through our services. Bringing that together into one organisation is probably the best thing I’ve done in my decade in charge. CIPFA is now much stronger for that – the merger has been enormously successful.

What advice would you give to your successor?

Follow your instincts. Chief Executive appointments are about fit, so the person who’s appointed will have the mindset and direction aligned with where the organisation wants to go next – it will be the reason that they got the job. Trust your instincts and be confident to make change.

What’s next for you as you look towards retirement?

Firstly, I still want to be busy. I remain curious, I enjoy solving problems, and I enjoy working with people. However, I am standing down from my executive career. I’ve been Chief Executive of four organisations for a total of around 20 years, and it will be good to have a bit more quality time for myself and my family and enjoy that balance a bit more. I’ll still be active, though, and I intend to make a contribution through a portfolio career – for instance, I’m currently chairing a large NHS hospitals group, and that will take up more of my time as I stand down from CIPFA.

What challenges do you foresee CIPFA facing in the coming months and years?

I see it facing positive challenges. The Institute is in a strong position and has a good foundation moving forward. We make a surplus every year, and our financial performance is good – certainly better than when I joined in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash and subsequent public sector cuts that were so challenging for the Institute. Building on my predecessor’s work, it’s now in a bright, confident position, so the key challenge is to exploit that potential.

There’s an enormous opportunity to really grow, to take the organisation forward and make CIPFA enormously successful. The challenge is to make sure that we use the foundation of where we are as a catapult to accelerate change. I honestly believe that my successor can take the Institute to a fantastic place compared with what I’ve achieved in a decade.

What are your hopes and aspirations for the Institute and members in the coming months and years?

I hope that the partnership with ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales) really helps us grow our qualification in the UK. The issue of portability between the private and public sectors has been an issue for three decades, but now we have a solution to that. How fantastic that training to be a CPFA qualified accountant also means you will be able to gain ACA chartered accountant designation? That presents an enormous opportunity in the UK for CIPFA to turn portability on its head and have an eminently good position from which to drive up student and member numbers. Also, the opportunity for CIPFA to continue to push on and grow internationally is even greater – many governments around the world want to have better financial management, and they will look to the UK and to CIPFA in order to see, and deliver, best practice.

Considering the recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI), would you say it’s more important for the public sector to adopt it sooner than the private sector? And do you feel it will be embraced or will there be scepticism?

I think the application of AI is a very broad church. There are clearly opportunities for public bodies to use AI to join up the data and drive the analysis of what their citizens need, but it can also help analyse what prevention and policy change can help achieve better outcomes and outputs for our communities. Separately, AI will enable us to become more productive in the way that we generate documents, for example.

The public sector will want to be at the forefront of AI because it is such a huge part of the economy. Utilising AI so we can have better, more adaptive policy and be more productive is likely to be hugely important – and CIPFA will no doubt help spearhead the sector’s understanding of that. It’s very early days; we know this is going to have an enormous impact on the economy – something akin to the industrial revolution – but we don’t know exactly how yet. As such, CIPFA’s role for now should be to convene and facilitate a conversation about the implications of AI in the public sector, and as it starts to develop, CIPFA will be at the forefront of it through developing standards, skills and learning.

Do you have any TV, book, film or podcast recommendations for anyone working in public finance?

Yes. If you watch The West Wing, Borgen, Yes, Minister and The Thick of It, then you’ll get a pretty good understanding around the scope of the interface between politics and management. Those programmes certainly stand the test of time. I’d also recommend the Palliser novels by Anthony Trollope, which absolutely cover the same set of issues around how politics works, and Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy, which is remarkably relevant – and contemporary – on the rise of populism and its threat to democratic institutions.