Carolyn is the Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Corporate Resources for Hampshire County Council. She also works as the Chief Financial Officer for Hampshire County Council and the Hampshire Pension Fund, and is responsible for Hampshire County Council’s IT service, leading on digital strategy implementation for the council. Carolyn became CIPFA president for the year 2019/20 and has been CIPFA qualified since 1991.
Why did you choose to train with CIPFA/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.
What have been the highlights/biggest successes of your career so far?
For me, up to this point, there are three things that stand out. Firstly, there 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.
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. 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 and three London boroughs, supporting 120,000 staff across all partner organisations. This is the largest arrangement of its kind in the public sector.
What’s been the greatest challenge?
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, as there has been a never-ending focus on driving down net revenue cost in response to government funding cuts – whether that is reducing expenditure or increasing income.
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.
What’s your typical working day like?
My typical working day is spent predominantly in the office in Winchester or in London in meetings and working on email communications and reviewing reports. Focus ranges from providing strategic recommendations to councillors and/or CX and corporate management team to leading and driving performance across the corporate resources team, including overseeing major developments for Hampshire County Council and across shared services partners and also the Hampshire Pension Fund.
During COVID-19, working at home, all of the above continues plus contributing as part of the Emergency Planning Gold Command in determining our on-going response and recovery which ranges from attending virtual meetings to directing changes across corporate resources to taking decisions regarding HR and IT policy and financial decisions.
When did you first become interested in a career in public finance?
I knew I wanted to work in finance or 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.
If you didn’t work in public finance, what kind of job would you be doing?
Given my time back I think I would have loved being a lawyer. I deal in facts and I love a strong evidence-based argument; I can usually provide a plausible argument to defend a position.
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.
If you were given one million pounds, how would you spend it?
I’d buy a beautiful chateau in the South of France. It would be quite a large building needing some renovation with period features including at least on spire tower, and with a large beautiful garden. I would spend time and money developing it for use as a high-quality venue for weddings and special occasions where large parties arrive to be accommodated and entertained in luxury surroundings.
I would enjoy using my organizational and planning and delivery skills, along with menu planning and hosting, I do enjoy cooking but I think I would leave that aspect to the professionals! This would allow me to have some ‘full on busy time’ coupled with ‘down time’ and all hopefully in excellent weather.
If you were chancellor for the day, what would be the first change you would make?
Local government reorganisation to achieve efficient and effective single-tier organisations able to work at large scale, while staying close to the communities they are there to serve. It is just such an obvious step to take when you look at it from inside local government, but it never gets any central government traction for perhaps obvious reasons.
What book/film/TV programme 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.
Who would be your ultimate dinner party guests?
Churchill – I love history and in particular learning about the war. I would like to hear from Churchill about why he didn’t bow out after World War 2 and celebrating his strong leadership role in our victory. Also having been through the war I would be interested in his thoughts around our current COVID-19 crisis and how ‘lockdown Britain’ compares to ‘wartime Britain’.
Harry Potter – my now young adults grew up with JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series; we have all the books and I saw all of the films at the cinema as they came out. He could perhaps use his magic wand to whisk us all to Hogwarts Great Hall for dinner – imagine a table of food and drink that never runs out!
Our Queen – I am a great fan of ‘The Crown’ and a strong supporter of the UK having a Royal Family. I would like to hear our Queen’s thoughts, after decades on the throne, about the changes she has seen throughout that period, for good and bad, what would she have liked to see play out differently and if she has given any thought to ‘succession planning’.
What would you say to someone 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.