09 December 2005
Anna Simons loves a challenge, whether it is belting out songs in a Japanese karaoke bar or joining the City. That's why the NAO is perfect for her, she tells Vivienne Russell
When Anna Simons first saw the National Audit Office advertisement for an assistant auditor general earlier this year, she thought the job would be perfect for a friend of hers.
But then, she says: 'I sat for ages in my study thinking, “This is a great job, a really interesting job. I'd be mad not to give it a go”.'
And give it a go, she did. After more than 20 years in banking, economics graduate Simons returned to the public sector where her career began, joining the NAO in June as assistant auditor general overseeing its health and public-private partnership work.
Making such a drastic career move has been challenging and she admits she felt a little like a rabbit in the headlights for the first few months. But she's also been relishing the chance to give her brain a good workout.
'I think one of the most exciting things in making quite a radical change is you have to start using your brain again. You can't run on autopilot, which you can when you've been in a job or a sector or an institution for a long time,' she says.
One of her ambitions at the NAO, Simons says, is to inject some facts and clear thinking into the particularly fraught debates surrounding her key responsibilities of health and public-private collaboration, particularly the Private Finance Initiative.
'Both my areas are politically contentious and arouse emotions and passions that aren't always rational,' she says.
'I think our biggest challenge is to bring some rationality into the debate and try to take away some of that emotional noise from both sides – to get some real facts into it. And that in itself is harder than you might imagine, to collect data that can really withstand challenge.'
Simons likens her work at the NAO to marriage guidance. She believes that both sides have to take some of the blame when deals don't work out.
'If you've got a good partnership, you can make the best of a proposal. If the private and public sectors aren't working as a team, it's going to be hard to make a contract work,' she says.
She is particularly enthusiastic about the NAO's workshops, which aim to disseminate lessons learnt across the sector. It was her natural curiosity about how things work that attracted her to audit in the first place, particularly the NAO's value-for-money work.
Although she has no previous experience of health, and only limited experience of public-private finance deals, she is looking forward to monitoring performance in two of the most rapidly changing areas of the public sector.
On the health side, she will be keeping a keen eye on the progress of foundation trusts and payment by results, as well as issuing another report on the state of NHS finances early next year.
This is an area of concern,' she says, 'because the Department of Health has said the deficit is expected to be bigger, and more trusts and PCTs are likely to be in deficit.
'We're trying to get underneath the surface of that and work out why… when more money has gone into the service as a whole. One of the reasons is that the department has deliberately created more transparency, and is not masking deficits that may have been there in previous years but were covered up in other ways.'
If anyone can get to the bottom of this increasingly high-profile problem, it is Simons. Andrew Hastings, who worked closely with her at BNP Paribas for nine years, praises her sharp mind, approachability and professional wisdom.
'Anna was always intelligent, perceptive and able to give good advice. And she was always good fun to work with. She wouldn't suffer fools gladly but if you worked well she had great humour,' he said.
Indeed, Simons' humour becomes evident as I ask about her background. She visibly relaxes and opens up as she reflects on her career path, which has taken her from the beaches of Barbados and the karaoke bars of Tokyo to her current position somewhere on the fourth floor of the NAO's rather stern and forbidding London headquarters.
Simons grew up in Preston, Lancashire, which she mischievously confides she couldn't wait to escape from. 'I was on the first bus out and I never went back. I couldn't wait to leave.' After a gap year au pairing in Paris ('I dropped the baby!'), she enrolled at the London School of Economics.
After graduation, Simons joined the government's economic service, an idealistic young civil service recruit, and began what was to be quite a frustrating period at the then Overseas Development Association, now the Department for International Development.
As a young woman embarking on her career, the antiquated hierarchy made her feel decidedly uncomfortable, while the job gave her no clear sense of purpose.
She remarks that returning to the public sector more than two decades later has been a pleasant surprise, with no traces of the 'Dickensian' working practices she endured first time around.
But if the ODA was not professionally fulfilling, it did at least satisfy one of her early desires: travel. She enjoyed extended stays in Swaziland and Belize before settling down to a two-year posting in Barbados.
With the travel bug out of her system, there was little reason for her to stay in the public sector. The post-Big Bang City was exploding as a source of employment, so 27-year-old Simons decided to try her luck there, despite her lack of private sector experience.
Taken on by the Japanese Sumitomo bank, she quickly got to grips with the industry and was rapidly promoted, becoming the bank's first female manager to be sent out to its Tokyo headquarters.
Simons cheerfully admits she could talk forever about her year in Japan, even if it was one of the toughest of her life. She was thrown into a social whirl. An 'honorary man', she accompanied her Japanese colleagues to the hostess and karaoke bars of Tokyo. But she frankly admits that the day job was lonely and tiring and soon began to take its toll.
'At about month seven or eight, I thought I can't stand this any more. I don't want to go out and sing karaoke again. How many times can you sing My way? I started to rebel against it. We went through a low patch when I became rather rude and bad tempered and they were getting annoyed because they wanted me to conform more.'
But having worked in other people's cultures has been invaluable. 'You can't sit there and think why aren't they doing it the way I like it? Eventually the penny drops,' she says. 'Those experiences have made me a lot more culturally adaptable.'
Her cultural adaptability was tested further when she moved to French bank Paribas in 1994 to build up its UK client portfolio. She stayed there for 11 years, through the merger with BNP, and has never worked harder in her life.
But it's not all work and no play for Simons. Away from the office, she likes to make the most of living in London. For years she has made her home in Islington, which she shares with her eight-year-old daughter. She even brings her love of the capital into her office, the walls of which are adorned with photographs of the distinctive red routemaster buses.
'I would describe myself as an urbanite,' she says. 'I like walking through the city. I like the arts and museums. I just like the buzz. It's a pity to live here and not enjoy what's on offer, so we make a conscious effort to go to galleries, to go to the theatre and to try to do some interesting walks.'
Are there any plans for more travel? 'I don't often get out beyond the M25,' she smiles. 'And I have to say, if I never take another business trip again, I'll be happy. I'm done.'