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02 December 2005

The Home Office's finance chief is bringing a professional accounting approach to Whitehall at a time when it is under most pressure. She talks to Mark Conrad

'Oh, it's you again? I have met all sorts of politicians and officials but the same journalist twice in as many weeks?'

Helen Kilpatrick raises a mischievous smile, but I get the impression she's only half joking as we enter her office high up in the Home Office's imposing new Westminster abode. To say that Kilpatrick, the department's financial and commercial director general, is a busy and important woman would be a sizeable understatement.

She has a challenging and wide-ranging remit in this huge organisation, which includes a position on the board. Kilpatrick was among the first finance chiefs to benefit from the Cabinet Office's initiative of placing qualified accountants on departmental boards, part of the Professional Skills for Government agenda.

Yet Public Finance has managed to squeeze two interviews into her crammed schedule in recent weeks – and she tolerates this imposition with the characteristic humour and enthusiasm that accompanies her professionalism.

A member of Kilpatrick's staff tells me she's 'lovely – an excellent manager: very relaxed, easy to get on with'. But a quick glimpse around the office also tells me that she runs a very tight ship. While the 'in-trays' are as full as you would expect at the Home Office, the 'pending trays' are near empty.

Six months into her new role, Kilpatrick is tackling head-on the daunting challenges facing the Home Office. As well as its traditional remit (crime reduction, prisons, probation, immigration, asylum), it is tackling the threat of global terrorism, which manifested itself in the UK with tragic effect last summer. If the likes of Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Ian Blair are to be believed, that will require a significant restructuring of policing resources – which Kilpatrick must oversee.

The department must also improve Britain's community cohesion policies in the fallout from the July bomb attacks on London, and civil disobedience in cities such as Birmingham. To this can also be added the controversial political issue of setting up an identity card system and improvements in passport security.

The department's substantial remit requires a large budget, but the Treasury has warned Kilpatrick that, like all other spending departments, the Home Office can expect a tight funding settlement when the delayed Comprehensive Spending Review is announced in 2007.

Characteristically, she finds a positive in this. '[It] means that all departments have an opportunity to present more detailed analyses and breakdowns of their financial requirements – including the Home Office, where we have those competing demands.'

Currently, Whitehall departments are also subject to a Treasury-led review of long-term trends affecting the UK. 'We've got to show that something like demographics isn't just about the ageing population or having fewer children in schools. It's about dealing effectively with diversity, immigration patterns and broader issues. Social cohesion issues, for example, are not just about tackling terrorism,' she explains.

In the search for efficient, targeted spending, Kilpatrick's team is piloting a new shared services plan that aims to identify how departments can save money while improving and linking their back-office functions, such as human resources and IT.

Former Cabinet Office minister John Hutton launched this Transformational Government strategy this year. 'The idea is that rather than mandate a big bang approach to shared services across government, which wouldn't work because it would be undeliverable, not to mention unmanageable, we will divide Whitehall into sectors – the Home Office being one on its own – which produce detailed plans to coalesce their corporate and back-office functions over time,' Kilpatrick says.

Few would doubt Kilpatrick's ability to thrive while managing the demanding agenda at Marsham Street. Her CV is impressive and a large chunk of her pre-Whitehall experience has been in local government, where efficiency drives have long been de rigueur.

'That's certainly given me an advantage compared with someone who has arrived in Whitehall from the private sector,' she explains.

After graduating from King's College in 1982, Kilpatrick entered local authority life as a trainee accountant at the former Greater London Council, achieving her CIPFA qualification in 1986. She quickly realised that her experience of providing vital services did not fit comfortably with wider perceptions of her organisation.

'It was a great job. I was working on £500m investment programmes for the housing sector, and yet the papers were full of negative stories about the odd grant, worth a few thousand pounds, given to what the tabloids called “loony Lefty lesbian” groups. The GLC's work was about so much more than the image that was often presented to people.'

After the GLC, Kilpatrick held a variety of posts across London boroughs, including controller of financial services at Greenwich. In 1995 she left the capital and was appointed director for resources and county treasurer at West Sussex County Council, later becoming deputy chief executive and treasurer to the local police authority.

A senior source at the Local Government Association told PF that the LGA quickly 'recognised her talent for producing very impressive results while juggling various and demanding roles', and in 1997 Kilpatrick was appointed LGA expenditure co-ordinator – a post she held until she joined the Home Office in April.

She has been unfazed by the switch from local public service to central government. Indeed, Kilpatrick compares the Home Office to a well-run local authority. 'People flag up the differences between Whitehall and other parts of the public services, but I'm often struck by how similar this department is to a large council.

'Parts of the Home Office are bespoke business units and require the same kind of management and financial stewardship as business units across local authorities. Even some of the funding models are similar.'

Incoming Home Office permanent secretary Sir David Normington will be comforted by Kilpatrick's understanding of local government. Whitehall departments will shortly be subject to the sort of performance assessments that have been imposed on councils.

Kilpatrick is sanguine about the Cabinet Office's Departmental Capability Reviews, but she qualifies her support. 'I think it's a good idea – provided that it's used as something positive and that departments… take some action that's going to improve their capabilities. I would dislike any idea that it turns into an exercise in departments justifying themselves and uses up a great deal of resources.'

So, she'd happily volunteer the Home Office to pilot DCRs? 'The Home Office is far too big. We wouldn't be asked. But we're certainly volunteering to be in the first tranche of full DCRs.'

Kilpatrick and Normington have enough on their plates. Which brings us neatly to Kilpatrick's life outside the office. She is, she tells me, something of a London restaurant enthusiast. She lives in the capital during the week but her 'real' family home is in Chichester, West Sussex.

There's little time to relax there, though. At weekends, she 'chauffeurs' her two children, aged 12 and 15, to various sports clubs and activities. 'I love it. It's great to go back home, do family things, and find a bit of [work-life] balance.'

So where is next on her restaurant list? 'Well I haven't been to a Gordon Ramsey venue yet – I haven't found a magazine that'll treat me,' she jokes. Steady on, Helen. We'd have to justify that sort of expenditure to our finance director – and you know how difficult that can be.

PFdec2005

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