01 April 2005
Ofsted's first ever finance director tells Vivienne Russell about his drive to bring the standards that he has fostered in local government to the inspectorate
Jon Thompson loves rebuilding things. House restoration is a passion and the Thompson family is busy renovating a 1920s art-deco-style house in Cheltenham – the third property that they have restored.
Restoration skills of another kind are currently standing Thompson in good stead at Ofsted, where he is carving out a role as the school inspectorate's first dedicated finance director.
His mission, he says, is to transform and update the organisation into one that delivers the best in professional public services.
Thompson is only the third qualified accountant to have been employed by Ofsted. His appointment forms part of Whitehall's professionalism agenda, spearheaded by Mary Keegan – head of the Government Accountancy Service – which requires all central government departments to employ a dedicated finance director by the end of next year.
He certainly has his work cut out. Ofsted's inspection role is expanding just as it has to find 20% efficiency savings as part of the Gershon process. It also badly needs a more professional financial culture.
Thompson says Ofsted has some big gaps when it comes to the Treasury's new financial management standards. 'We currently meet only about 35% of those standards so there's a big raft of things that need to be done.'
He jokingly agrees with the suggestion that accountants are the new civil servants, but quickly adds that financial experts are not the only professionals who are helping to transform central government.
'There's a much more professional approach to human resources, to information management, to data management, to estates and procurement,' he says. 'There's a whole range of professional back-office services that central government needs to tackle.'
The recently announced rationalisation of inspectorates will no doubt bring further changes to the organisation's structure. Ofsted is set to pick up the work of the Adult Learning Inspectorate as well as taking on the inspection of children's social services.
The efficiency agenda is taking up a significant part of Thompson's time. Ofsted's 11 regional offices are to be reduced to three – in Bristol, Manchester and Nottingham. Approximately 500 staff – mainly those performing administrative functions – will be laid off.
Renegotiated contracts, improved housekeeping and better use of information technology are also expected to release further savings but there is more to be done, Thompson admits.
'We're not quite there in terms of the 20% savings. We're well above 15% but we've still got further work to do in 2007/08,' he says.
Thompson joined Ofsted last September from North Somerset Council, where he was director of finance and resources.
In that role, he transformed the council's failing housing benefit services into one awarded the maximum four-out-of-four rating in the Comprehensive Performance Assessment. 'That was really good. I got large personal value out of that,' he says.
The shift from the town hall to Whitehall has been illuminating. Thompson observes that there is a big 'catch-up exercise' for central government if it wants to match the best of what is being done in local government.
'I think local government and the NHS are in certain respects a lot further ahead than central government in terms of how they manage resources. That's why the drive from Mary Keegan at the Treasury is incredibly important for central government finance directors to pick up,' he says.
'For example, I was used to a rolling three-year medium term financial planning process – we did budgets and business plans and all that. You very rarely find that in central government and there's a significant difference there.'
Nevertheless, Thompson describes his new job as 'fantastic' and 'very rewarding'. He speaks with real enthusiasm of a recent visit to a school in special measures to see Ofsted's work on the front line.
'It was tremendous to see inspectors working with children, understanding where the school was and where it was developing,' he says.
But he also confesses to enjoying the rather more political benefits that have accompanied his move to Whitehall.
'Central government feels really close to the action. I am able to access people whom I couldn't have accessed as a local authority finance director because I was one of 150. But now I'm one of a much smaller number and it's easier to get to know people who've got a lot more influence.'
Thompson was born in 1964 in Norwich and began his career at Norfolk County Council, where he took his CIPFA qualification.
He has also spent time in the private sector, working on public services consultancy and audit for Ernst & Young, an experience he says has proved useful.
'The great beauty of working for one of the Big Four accountancy firms is that you get to see lots of different ways of tackling the same issue. I might have seen 50 local authorities in a year. You can pick the best of what you learn from that and apply it when you go forward. I'd recommend it to anyone.'
Chief inspector of schools and Ofsted head David Bell says he was particularly impressed by Thompson's extensive public and private sector experience, which he thought would be a real asset to a Whitehall department.
Bell speaks warmly of the contribution his finance director has already made. 'Even in the short time he has been with us, Jon has proved to be more than equal to the task and already I have noticed a real step change in our finance-related work. He has a very bright future ahead,' he says.
In turn, Thompson says he gets on with Bell 'tremendously well' and pays tribute to the chief inspector's leadership skills.
Like Bell, Thompson is an avid reader and confesses to enjoying whatever 'junk books' WH Smith has on offer. But as well as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and Andy McNab's Dark Winter, he enjoys reading philosophy.
He also serves as treasurer ('unsurprisingly!') for his local church and is a keen cook. Then there's always that house to restore.
Ofsted's good policies on facilitating work at home have made it easy for Thompson to maintain the Cheltenham house he shares with his wife and three sons, avoiding the need to relocate to London.
Working at home allows him valuable time to reflect. 'The incredibly important thing about working at a senior level is about the capacity to think. To think about where you are and think about where you're going and I have that with this job. I've got the best of both worlds.'
Thompson says it's too early to say where he would like to move on to but would like, when the time is right, to move to a bigger government department. In the meantime, there is plenty to be getting on with.
'I want to be remembered as the person who modernised Ofsted, brought it up to date and took it further ahead before he went and did something else.'