By Winnie Agbonlahor

04 Dec 2014

Julian Kelly is the government’s first ever director-general of public spending and finance. He tells Winnie Agbonlahor about his plans for strengthening the profession

In December 2013 the government published its Financial Management Review, which called for a number of changes to improve financial skills and processes across government. One of its recommendations was to combine the role of Treasury director-general of public spending with that of head of the finance profession. And in May the then DG of public spending, Julian Kelly, was appointed into the newly-created post – which came with a ‘dotted line’ management responsibility over departmental finance chiefs. This means he is working with them on improving performance in departments, and also gives Kelly an input into their mid-year reviews – he shares his thoughts about their overall performance and aptitude for the job with the relevant permanent secretary.

Besides the creation of his job, the review also called for the Treasury to work with departments so that they “can take greater responsibility for some areas of expenditure that are currently controlled by the centre”. Asked which controls are likely to be given back to departments and when, Kelly says the Treasury and the Cabinet Office are “not yet at the stage of saying: ‘Definitely this control or that control’,” adding that “we’re working through that.”

Before any kind of controls currently held at the centre – such as approving IT expenditure over £5m, or training and development spending over £10,000 – can be handed back to departments, Kelly says he has to be sure that government “has got the right [finance] people in the right jobs, who are clearly showing that they’re signed up to whatever the government is planning on doing.”

Making sure people are in jobs suited to their skills and talents is a big priority for Kelly. While he says that “most” of his senior finance colleagues are “good and capable” of doing the job, he wants to make sure the best finance professionals in the lower ranks are identified and helped on their way up the career ladder. “We will have some moves over the next six months as people are moving on or retiring, and right now we’re looking at who the best two or three are who can take up those opportunities,” he says.

His idea of identifying the most talented and helping them to progress might – at least in part – originate from the way he entered government: an Oxford graduate with a degree in foreign languages, he joined a generalist civil service Fast Stream. Not long after that, he says, the Treasury approached him and said: “‘You have the sort of profile we’re looking for. Are you interested?’”. He went into the Treasury, “spoke to a few people and thought: ‘Well, I need a job and that sounds interesting’, so I said ‘yes’.”

To help people identify the sets of skills and experience required in different finance roles, Kelly wants to create a central training offer for all members of the finance profession – “something that almost looks like a finance academy,” he says. 

This would help finance professionals to understand “the broader range of skills that you would need at different stages of your career, and [ensure that] the relevant training [is] easy to access.” This training offer could be offered through a portal on Civil Service Learning, he says; he hopes that “a version of it” will be launched in the next six months. 

Won’t Kelly need extra cash to create a central training hub for the finance profession? The budget is already there, he replies: “The civil service’s commitment is to provide five days of training a year. People have training budgets. The question is: do they know what training is available?” Plus, he adds, much core financial training is already available, albeit in different “versions scattered around in government”. So the aim for the centre of the profession, he says, is to “pull that together and package it in a way that’s easily accessible for a finance person.”

Having the right people in finance posts is also key to increasing the profession’s input into the decision-making process, Kelly says. Previous profession heads have voiced concerns over their staff being kept out of the loop when crucial policymaking decisions are made. But Kelly says that finance professionals must actively ensure they’re being heard and “explain the information simply.”

If finance civil servants demonstrate to policymakers that their information is relevant, he believes, policy officials will start involving finance professionals in decisions as a matter of course. “Stop sitting back and waiting for people to ask you,” he says. “Get on the front foot; go and get yourself involved. Stop waiting for the process to be sorted out – because if you wait for that, you’re waiting a long time. The finance function needs to take responsibility for itself and get itself involved.”

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