A woman of substance

3 Jun 10
CIPFA's new president brings experience of both health and local government to the role, as well as a strong public sector ethos. She explains her goals to PF editor Mike Thatcher
By Mike Thatcher

03 June 2010

CIPFA’s new president brings experience of both health and local government to the role, as well as a strong public sector ethos. She explains her goals to PF editor Mike Thatcher

It’s a tough time to become CIPFA ­president. We await an emergency Budget and a Comprehensive Spending Review that will confirm a level of cuts in public services unseen for decades. And finance staff will be in the line of fire – in terms of both making the cuts and ­justifying their own existence.

So Jaki Meekings Davis, who takes up the presidency at the institute’s annual conference in Harrogate next week, could be forgiven some trepidation. But she tells Public Finance that the crisis is actually an opportunity for CIPFA ­members to come into their own.

‘With the country in such dire straits, it reinforces the fact that public financial management is the right skill set for where we are now,’ she says. With a £156bn black hole to plug, she suggests the government will need all the financial expertise it can muster. However, there’s a lot more to it than bean counting, she stresses: ‘It’s about much more than accountancy – it’s about understanding the broader context of how the public sector fits together and undertakes its role.’

Of course, Meekings Davis has been here before. In a career spanning local government, the water industry and the health service, she has experienced plenty of ups and downs in the economic cycle, as well as numerous reorganisations. More recently, she has been working in the NHS, partly as a mediator and mentor, so she knows how to manage ­stressful situations.

She recollects her time in the finance department at Yorkshire Water in the early 1980s, when public services faced a similar onslaught to today. Meekings Davis, who eventually became deputy director of finance in the organisation’s rivers division, had to work with ­engineers to make huge savings.

‘We had to take 25% of our costs out. You cannot do that as a backroom accountant. You’ve got to understand the business and be able to allow intelligent people to make the decisions that need to be taken about changing working practices,’ she says.

This philosophy was a factor throughout her later career at Southampton City Council, where she was assistant director of technical services, and Wessex Regional Health Authority, where she became regional director of finance in 1992 – the first woman to hold such a position. Carol Bolton, now the deputy chief executive at Fareham Borough Council, worked with CIPFA’s incoming president at Wessex.

‘Jaki was very good at getting the ­message across that we were there to provide a health service. She could see the bigger picture and knew that the finance function was about more than accountancy. She was very clear about that and it is something that has stayed with me,’ says Bolton.

Wessex had experienced problems with an IT project that had wasted millions of pounds and it had been forced to recruit a new management team. Meekings Davis was part of the new blood and she helped to create revised governance arrangements, including the establishment of audit committees and risk registers. These innovations were later adopted widely across the NHS and beyond.

When Wessex merged with an adjoining region in 1994, Meekings Davis became regional director of finance for the new South West Regional Health Authority. The following year she became deputy chief executive of Wiltshire Health Authority and from 1999 to 2007 she was director of specialised commissioning for NHS South of England.

This experience led to some high-profile appointments. She was president of the Healthcare Financial Management Association in 1998 and a member of Lord Carter’s 2006 review into the commissioning arrangements for specialised services. She also chaired the finance and capital group for high security psychiatric hospitals over a number of years.

During this period she worked closely with Baroness Rennie Fritchie, the then chair of the regional health authority. Fritchie says that Meekings Davis is someone with a strong public service ethos who practises what she preaches. She points out that CIPFA’s incoming president helps to look after a disabled child one weekend a month to give his parents some respite.

Fritchie says that Meekings Davis was always well prepared and worked extraordinarily hard. ‘Do not underestimate this woman in terms of her power, energy and vitality,’ Fritchie tells PF. ‘She is a great problem solver and good at finding ways through.’

These qualities will no doubt be tested in the year ahead when novel solutions will be sought to get through the financial crisis. Meekings Davis believes that some creative thinking will be necessary and some cherished public sector policies might have to be sacrificed. Choice, for instance, will be very difficult to maintain in an age of austerity.

‘The choice agenda assumes that there is spare capacity in the system. It is questionable that we can now afford to sustain such spare capacity. We have created a society that assumes it can anticipate a level of choice that isn’t currently affordable and public aspirations will have to change,’ she argues.

In the NHS, in particular, there will be further pressure to change the payment by results hospital funding system. ­Meekings Davis says that PbR is partially suspended in some areas because of the lack of adequate funding. ‘Payment by results is fine for elective surgery or elective treatments where referral rates can be managed. But beyond that there are perverse incentives and it is actually impossible for many parts of the NHS to work to a tariff,’ she says.

Influencing the coalition government on issues such as these will be one of Meekings Davis’s priorities in the year ahead. She wants CIPFA to play an active part in helping the country to regain fiscal sustainability. To this end, the institute will be publishing an updated version of its manifesto at the Harrogate conference next week, which offers a 12-step recovery ­programme for the ­coalition government.

But the new president also has more parochial concerns, in terms of maintaining and growing the institute’s membership and providing members with personal support.

It seems that the active social life that she shares with her husband Martin – involving music concerts, a wine club and holidays to examine Islamic architecture – might have to be put on hold for a while.

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