Pole position: finance chief Mike Driver on why government’s number crunchers must be central to decision making
Mike Driver is heading up the government finance function at a time when civil servants’ skills are under unprecedented scrutiny. He tells Richard Johnstone about how he plans to improve diversity of thinking
Photos by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
As the head of the government finance function, Mike Driver is tasked with realising a longstanding goal of the finance profession to be at the heart of decision making, from being in the room when policy is being made, to linking plans to performance on the ground.
It is fitting, then, that Driver has made a similar journey in his own career. Two decades ago he swapped policymaking for finance, which led to a professional qualification and, ultimately, his position as Whitehall’s number one numbers man.
Having joined the civil service in a Department of Health and Social Security benefits office in Harrow in 1979 – “I’d like to say it was because of altruistic reasons around public service, but I’ll be honest, it was a job” – Driver had moved into policy by the late 1990s.
“I was part of the then-Department of Social Security team that was responsible for the UK presidency of the European Union in 1998. When I came back from Brussels, having spent quite a bit of time there, my boss decided I needed to go and tick the box which said ‘finance’.”
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So in the run up to the 2000 Spending Review, he was moved, because his superiors “felt I was good at policy, good at negotiating, quite good with people, and that I should go into finance and test myself in that environment, and then come back to policy”.
He ended up leading for the department on its Spending Review settlement with the Treasury, securing a funding increase, and never returned directly to the policy profession.
“I really enjoyed finance, and finance was trying to professionalise, so that rather than finance roles being held by gifted amateurs, they were becoming roles that needed to be held by gifted professionals,” he recalls.
His own professional qualification soon followed as he moved up the ranks in the DWP finance team. In 2016, he was appointed chief finance officer at the Ministry of Justice. He then added the role of head of the finance function in June 2017.
At a time when the function is working to emphasise the role of finance professionals as not just book-keepers but “trusted partners” in decision making, Driver’s own career helps illustrate the benefits of a less siloed approach.
“I don’t think you can see these things in absolute isolation. We need to be far more agile in the way in which we join up themes, join up policies, join up functions, so that we get the right business outcomes,” he says.
He is speaking to CSW the morning after the 12 December election. Over the days and weeks that follow, the prime minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings will let it be known that he has radical plans for reforming Whitehall. Cummings – who has said that “one of the problems with the civil service is the way in which people are shuffled such that they either do not acquire expertise or they are moved out of areas they really know [in order] to do something else” – will soon realise there are others within Whitehall who have also been thinking about how to build and share expertise.
Driver says he first noticed the silos across departments in the early 2000s, and it is one of the things that the finance function is keen to tackle, with the pledge to be “driving the agenda, not just keeping score” in its latest strategy, published in July.
“I think there was a degree of isolation [then], and there still can be even now, where policy colleagues can develop a beautifully articulated piece of policy and then sometimes ask finance to produce the numbers to go with that policy.
“That’s not the way it should be. As we define policy, the right people – be they commercial colleagues, finance colleagues, policy colleagues – need to be working in a far more joined-up way. That’s what I mean by trusted partner.”
The strategy sets out a plan to 2023 to achieve this vision, but Driver acknowledges that putting finance at the centre of decision-making is a challenge.
“There are still many places across government where we need to push further to ensure that, at all levels, finance is at the right meetings, involved as a submission is written, and at the shoulder of the decision maker when they’re taking those big decisions,” he says.
To get to this point, the 10,000 civil servants in the function need to earn and maintain the trust of their colleagues by getting the nuts and bolts of financial reporting and controls right. This – alongside such aims as improving people, diversity and capability – is among the plan’s key priorities.
“The basics are the foundations upon which our licence to operate exists,” Driver says. “If we can’t do the basics of budgeting, no one’s going to listen to us when we want to do more inventive, more creative, more innovative things.”
He adds that there has been “a general improvement” in the quality of civil service scorekeeping and transparency “so that people can understand not just what we spend as government or as departments, but how we spend it and what value they get from that”.
The function has also been busy creating centres of excellence, including one for delivery of tax policy, and another looking at technical accounting requirements, based in the Ministry of Defence. “These are things that often departments would do in isolation,” Driver says. “But what we’re trying to do is make these things more of a team sport, so that we have that consistent view of the best approach.”
“Sometimes, policy colleagues can develop a beautifully articulated piece of policy and then ask finance to produce the numbers to go with it. That’s not the way it should be”
Creating a more strategic role for finance may be Driver’s target, but he is not the first person to grapple with the problem. A review of financial management under the coalition government in 2013 agreed financial reporting had improved but said “it will become increasingly important that finance is consistently at the centre of strategy and policy formation”.
To lead this, the review recommended that the role of head of the finance profession – then held by a departmental finance director like Driver – be merged with the Treasury’s director general of public spending job. This post would oversee the whole function in government, encompassing internal audit and counter-fraud, as well as accountants.
This reform was implemented in 2014 when Julian Kelly was named Treasury director general, public spending and finance, but split again in 2017 when Kelly left for the Ministry of Defence. His successor, James Bowler, did not have the finance qualification that the review said was necessary to head the function, meaning Driver got that job.
The quick reversal of an apparently major reform was criticised by the Institute for Government, who said it undermined the intention to strengthen financial leadership across government.
Driver acknowledges “there was some criticism about the way in which we’ve set this up” but says the reforms hadn’t quite been working as intended.
“When we looked at the way in which the role was performing – and I think if Julian were here, he’d probably agree with this – he spent most of his time worrying about public spending and a very small amount of his time thinking about the way in which the function was operating.
“What we tried to do is to bring more resource in when James Bowler became the head of public spending and I became the head of the function, and we’ve tried to build a really strong collaboration between us.”
Among the benefits of the new structure, Driver says, is the fact he has to practice in the MoJ what he preaches as function head.
“For me, it is very important to not just sit in an ivory tower somewhere, telling people how to run finance organisations,” he says. “The advantage of me being both the head of the function and the CFO in the MoJ is I have to apply my own requirements.
“I have to, in some ways, be at the front of the queue for any change that we’re making – thinking about diversity, or our people capability, or the way in which we’re using our financial systems. We have continued to develop our model and as a result, I think the Treasury as a department and the function, most of which is sitting in departments, are operating now in a much more conjoined way than was the case previously.”
One example that Driver cites of this improved way of working is how integral finance was after the implosion of the outsourcing firm Carillion, where the function worked closely with commercial and HR colleagues to ensure that the government reaction was coordinated.
“We were able to work together to look at the whole system, rather than having each department look at the issue separately. As a result, we reduced the impact of the collapse on public services, we reduced the risk of people losing their jobs in Carillion, and we could step in much earlier to take control of some services.”
Driver goes on to describe the way the functions worked together to help form – within just two weeks – an MoJ-owned company to take over Carillion’s prisons maintenance contracts.
“The person who held the ring initially was [government commercial chief] Gareth Rhys Williams, but rather than just letting Gareth get on with it on his own, I feel there was a real camaraderie and collective desire to work together, and we were able to achieve a huge amount.
“Those are the sorts of things that demonstrate the confidence and ability of the function to be able to do things differently and drive better business outcomes.”
Finance has also been at the forefront of the implementation of one of prime minister Boris Johnson’s flagship policies, Driver highlights, with his officials in the MoJ integral in helping prepare for the consequences of prime minister’s pledge to recruit 20,000 more police officers.
“The work that we’ve done in finance with colleagues in the Home Office, and with our own analysts and policy colleagues, to understand the supply consequences and the demand challenges on our department has been first rate, and involved ministers at an early stage. I think we’re starting to change the way in which we operate for the better.”
In comments that would not sound out of place coming from Cummings, Driver says these arrangements also help bring diversity of thought into government.
“I firmly believe that the finance function is far more than just the accountants in the civil service,” he says. “I was speaking to a group of Fast Streamers a little while ago and said: if you take the strategic finance team of any department, the worst team you can have is all accountants, because accountants are trained to think in a similar way.
“What you need is diversity of thinking. So those teams need to be made up of accountants, economists, operational researchers, people who’ve got a track record in operational delivery, so that you can look at a problem from multiple directions and come up with more innovative and more deliverable solutions than would otherwise be the case.”
This policymaker-turned-number-cruncher can clearly see the benefits of more people making a similar journey to his own.
“One of the things we’re trying to do as a community is embrace people from other backgrounds and with other skills and capabilities,” he says.
“Everyone will have their specialist role and responsibility but challenging each other as we go through these processes will very often give us better outcomes.”
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