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8 Jun 06
Scotland's deputy auditor general is renowned as a cool, strategic thinker, a quality she will bring to CIPFA as the institute's new president. Mike Thatcher reports

09 June 2006

Scotland's deputy auditor general is renowned as a cool, strategic thinker, a quality she will bring to CIPFA as the institute's new president. Mike Thatcher reports

Auditors are never loved. The best they can hope for is to be respected. And that's certainly the case with Audit Scotland, which oversees 200 public bodies spending £20bn of taxpayers' money north of the border.

In the six years since its inception, the organisation has carved out a reputation for independence and effectiveness. As well as examining central departments, councils and health boards, it now keeps a beady eye on colleges, Scottish Water and agencies such as Transport Scotland.

Part of the reason for its success is undoubtedly the impact of the deputy auditor general and controller of audit Caroline Gardner. Her boss, auditor general Bob Black, certainly thinks so. 'Without Caroline's distinctive contribution, Audit Scotland would not have come so far, so fast, in such a short time,' he says.

Gardner is seen as a cool, strategic thinker. Whether it's criticising the NHS in Scotland over missed targets, giving evidence to MSPs on teachers' pay or criticising the Executive's efficiency programme, she is the master of her brief. And now Gardner will bring her analytical talents to CIPFA, where she is about to take up the institute's presidency.

CIPFA's 116th president will take the helm at a particularly significant time. The institute has just launched its development strategy for 2006–2010, after it narrowly failed to merge with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. Members will no doubt be discussing these and other issues at CIPFA's annual conference next week in Harrogate.

But Gardner is unlikely to be fazed by the challenges ahead. She has had her own tough task in Scotland, where she is seen as the driving force behind Best Value in local government. Not to be confused with England's Comprehensive Performance Assessments, Scotland's Best Value eschews league tables for an emphasis on continuous improvement. Some see it as a model for scrutiny across all UK public services.

'Best Value audits have been a real contribution to us getting performance issues to the top of the agenda for council leaders and elected members,' says Gardner. 'We focus on what a council is trying to achieve and how well it's been doing, rather than digging into the detail.'

Best Value is all about the bigger picture, and this is a term that constantly crops up when Gardner's contribution is analysed. She belies any suggestion of auditors as old-fashioned bean counters.

According to Black: 'There is a risk that auditors can concentrate on the technical analysis and the detail at the expense of the big-picture issues that matter. Caroline's leadership in Audit Scotland is invaluable because she always has the big picture in mind.'

Gardner's analytical and communications skills mean that she is constantly in demand to brief MSPs, speak at conferences, attend receptions or talk to journalists about a critical report. She admits that she was initially daunted by this part of the job – 'I'm an introvert at heart' – but has come to enjoy it.

'One of the challenges for us is to be able to get across the messages that come out of our work. It has to make sense to people who aren't as immersed in the detail as we are, whether that's politicians on the Audit Committee or people watching Newsnight Scotland.'

Originally from London, Gardner has spent the past 11 years living and working in Edinburgh. Before her appointment as deputy auditor general, she spent five years as director of health and social work studies at the Accounts Commission. Her success in gaining the confidence of audited bodies was apparent here, too.

'She just bowled me over completely the first time I met her,' says Baroness Ford of Cunninghame, the former chair of Lothian Health Board. 'She's a very creative thinker. People bandy around the word “strategic”. But Caroline is genuinely one of the few strategic thinkers that I have met in my career.'

Ford, who is now the chair of English Partnerships, says that Gardner had been a champion of improved leadership skills in the public sector long before this became fashionable. She put this into practice by studying for an MBA and taking part in the Cabinet Office's Top Management

Programme.

Gardner was singled out as a high-flyer early on in her career. Having studied for her CIPFA exams while working as a trainee accountant at Wolverhampton council, she was then poached by District Audit to lead on value-for- money investigations in the NHS.

The then district auditor, Will Werry, describes her as a 'free spirit' who was in no way a traditional auditor. 'Caroline was very imaginative, not hidebound and extraordinarily quick on the uptake,' he says.

Clearly ambitious to succeed, Gardner has been happy to move around the country. She went to university at Aston, worked in Wolverhampton, moved to Birmingham with District Audit, then transferred to the Audit Commission in London before relocating to Scotland in 1995. Thankfully, her husband Paul, who works in IT, has been happy to travel with her.

'I enjoy my work. I like doing it well. I have been willing to go where there are opportunities,' she says. 'But I'm now very happy in Scotland. I'd like to think that I am an honorary Scot.'

The incoming CIPFA president has also climbed the institute ladder very quickly. She has been a member of the CIPFA Council since 2000 and was vice chair of the Members and Students Development Board. In 2001/02, she was also chair of CIPFA in Scotland.

She says her main goal in the year ahead is to help implement CIPFA's development strategy, particularly the plan to tailor services closer to the needs of members and students and the push for a bigger international agenda.

'We are getting much better at communicating with members, through e-mail for example. But we can get better at tailoring our communications to where people work and the particular interests that they have registered,' she says.

The CIPFA presidency and the day job might curtail some of Gardner's own outside interests, which include theatre, cinema and reading – she is in the final year of an Open University degree in English Literature. But she is determined to continue her passion for running, which she took up just before she turned 40 three years ago.

'It was mainly out of vanity and greed,' she admits. 'I wanted to be able to keep on eating and drinking without worrying about getting fat. I completed the Edinburgh marathon in five and a half hours – not quite Paula Radcliffe but I achieved my goal, which was to finish the same day I started.'

Caroline Gardner will take over as president of CIPFA at the institute's AGM on Tuesday, June 13

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