'The chief exec called me his plumber because I fixed things': Reflections on 45 years in the civil service

From humble beginnings as a prisoners' monies clerk to senior posts in the Treasury, Kevin Ross shares his journey through the civil service
Then and now: Kevin Ross at the start of his career in 1979 and more recently

By Kevin Ross

28 Nov 2023

One sunny morning back in late March 1979, I was standing outside Holloway prison in London looking up at the high walls and massive gates thinking: "Is this where I am going to start my working life?" I had graduated in business studies but wondered if I could really put all that theory into practice.

Who would have thought that I would be sitting here almost 45 years later, looking at retiring at the end of the month, and reflecting on how quickly the time has passed? 

I needn’t have worried. My colleagues were great – extremely friendly and helpful. I was Prisoners Monies clerk looking after individual paper ledger sheets for each prisoner in a large green file – Receipts, Payments and Balance. No computers, internet or technology other than an electric desk adding machine at the time.  

Not long after I was promoted to cashier for the prison and spent my time working on manual receipts and payments ledgers for all transactions. Officers had the option of being paid weekly in cash, so I made up individual cash pay envelopes each week for several hundred officers. The remaining officers were paid by written cheques posted via Royal Mail to their banks. All other transactions were recorded using the pen-and-paper method – cutting-edge technology! 

Fast forward to the mid-1980s. I had qualified as an accountant (ACCA) and was working on my three years practical experience requirement to gain my letters and join the Government Accountancy Service (predecessor of the government finance function). By now I was working with Prison Industries – initially in Tolworth and ultimately sharing the top floors of Lunar House in Croydon with the Immigration Department.

Prison Industries ran a series of workshops attached to each prison in England and Wales, so several hundred in all. Prisoners were employed in the workshops, which dealt with tailoring, metalwork, woodwork, concrete and plastic products for use in prisons. The whole thing was a massive standard costing system and I spent my time analysing workshop returns submitted by prison manufacturing clerks, breaking each product down into price, volume and manufacturing variances. 

At that time, the Home Office Internal Audit Unit was advertising for senior internal auditors, so I applied and the next thing was I found myself leading internal audit assignments across the Home Office in the late 80s/early 90s. Scary stuff – 14 or so directorates which were so standalone that even the IT was not compatible across the department for some applications! 

By 1992 I was ready to move on and spotted an advert for a Grade 7 role in the Government Accountancy Service Management Unit based in the Treasury. That was the start of my working relationship with the Treasury and I have been in and out of Treasury roles ever since. 

One of the most significant of these was the privilege to be a key part of the roll-out of Resource Accounting and Budgeting (RAB), a seven-year project from 1993 to 2000, where I ended up as team leader of what by then had become the Development of Accountancy Resources team. I led on skills and training for all departments to ensure everyone could work with the new accruals accounting systems, interpreting and analysing the information these systems were capable of producing.  

To do this I established a Finance Training Network.  

The RAB rollout consisted of a series of trigger points for departments, such as production of a trial balance, balance sheet and shadow accounts. I persuaded Professor (now Sir) Andrew Likierman – who  was both my line manager and leader of the RAB initiative – to introduce a training trigger-point requirement, which helped ensure departments had the necessary skills in place by the time the Government Resources and Accounts Act was passed in 2000. I have to say, Andrew was an incredible line manager – I literally learned something new every day while working for him. I also gained a Treasury-sponsored Executive MBA through Imperial College during this time.  

In late 2002, I saw an advert for the director of corporate services role at the Commission for Racial Equality. It was leading a staff of about 25 people and covering the role of finance director (the first qualified one since the CRE was formed in 1973), with facilities and IT into the bargain. The CRE had been going through a series of grant overspends at the time and an exasperated Home Office (the sponsoring department) insisted a qualified accountant was needed to help sort it out.  

"The CRE staff were the most passionate about their purpose I have ever worked with. But they were almost anarchic in terms of not seeing the need to exercise financial control in pursuit of their objectives!"

I loved this role over the following five years. The CRE staff were the most passionate about their purpose I have ever worked with. But they were almost anarchic in terms of not seeing the need to exercise financial control in pursuit of their objectives! They provided me with the ultimate challenge in bringing the finances back under control. The arrival of Trevor Phillips as chair gave us the necessary incentive to achieve this – he stood up at an all staff gathering and simply said you WILL NOT overspend, or else. It worked. He was one of the most powerful personalities I have ever worked with, and I am deeply grateful for the privilege to have had him as my line manager. 

In late 2008 I headed back to the Treasury, and on to Clear Line of Sight (CLOS) and the absorption of a number of arm’s-length bodies into Treasury Group. This particular challenge involved taking the unwilling into a totally unwanted consolidation where the benefits were not entirely clear to them, although obviously they were to us. The Financial Services Compensation Scheme saw this as a threat to their independence and the then Money Advice Service announced they weren’t funded by public money (!) so CLOS didn’t apply to them. Challenging times. 

By late 2013 I had moved on to the role of chief operating officer with Infrastructure UK, working for the CEO Geoffrey Spence, who called me his "plumber" because I fixed things. Geoffrey was a former spad who worked the ministerial corridor with ease and knew everything – yes, everything – that went on in IUK (aided by me, of course).  

November 2015 saw the merging of IUK with the Major Projects Authority into the Infrastructure and Projects Authority based in the Cabinet Office. My role changed to financial controller with the IPA so Treasury HR helpfully suggested I could go on loan for 2 years to the Cabinet Office. 

Whilst there, I created the IPA Financial Control team, staffed it with finance professionals and took over P2P process from CO Finance with a five-day turnaround (requisition to PO number generated and despatched). I also continued as company secretary to IUK Investments Holdings Ltd and IUK Investments Ltd (Treasury-owned companies) until I returned to the Treasury in April 2018. 

This brings me to my current role as head of operational risk and assurance, reporting on risk management covering the ALBs in Treasury Group. I also lead on the Public Body Review programme (formerly tailored reviews) broadly covering the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of our ALBs. 

So, looking back, it has been a varied and interesting career. I think the main things I will take away with me all involve people – memories of those who I have worked with or for, and those who are now lifetime friends who I will continue to meet up with after I finish work at the end of the month.  

What of the future? Well. I have been talking to the chief executive of the Croydon Citizen’s Advice office about volunteering for a year to start with as an adviser to gain a thorough and practical understanding of the issues facing people and then perhaps a role as a trustee going forwards. I am very excited about this change in direction while still doing something useful with my newly found spare time. 

So all that remains to say is this is me signing off, thanks for being such brilliant and helpful colleagues, and very best wishes for the future to you all. 


Finance Internal Audit
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