The Voice: Rob Whiteman interview

29 Aug 13
Rob Whiteman likes to pump up the volume, whether it’s belting out operatic arias or singing the praises of accountants. CIPFA’s new chief executive tells PF he intends to be a vocal presence in the ongoing debates over public sector funding and reform

By Mike Thatcher | 30 August 2013

Rob Whiteman likes to pump up the volume, whether it’s belting out operatic arias or singing the praises of accountants. CIPFA’s new chief executive tells PF he intends to be a vocal presence in the ongoing debates over public sector funding and reform.

Rob Whiteman

THE FIRST ELECTION for the mayor of London and the Greater London Authority in 2000 was bedevilled by delays to the count. At Blackheath Concert Halls, where voting for Greenwich and Lewisham was being decided, hundreds of eager politicians were getting agitated.

Then Lewisham council chief executive Barry Quirk had a bright idea. ‘I asked Rob Whiteman, then our finance director, if he could fill the void. He surprised everyone by bursting into song. After 20 minutes of fabulous arias, Rob had the politicians and the counters on their feet clapping.’

There are many similar stories of Whiteman’s operatic talent, dating back to his childhood in the East End of London. As a youngster, he acted and sang in plays and musicals, and studied singing under the great Welsh baritone Ivor Evans. He seemed destined for a lifetime of working in music, but it was not to be.

Instead, he embarked on a career in local government finance, then became a respected council chief executive and, finally, took on national roles leading the Improvement and Development Agency and the UK Border Agency.

As we meet at the Home Office, just ahead of him taking over from Steve Freer as CIPFA chief executive, the singing career seems a long time ago. But Whiteman is still keen to discuss the importance of ‘voice’. Only this time, it’s about speaking up for CIPFA members and promoting good financial management.

‘CIPFA doesn’t just qualify accountants. It turns out good ones, people who can do value for money, governance and assurance. Actually, CIPFA brings business skills to the public sector. We are proud to be in the public sector, and I think we should vocalise that a bit more,’ he tells me.

It’s important that CIPFA is prepared to speak ‘truth unto power’, he suggests, even if sometimes that upsets the great and the good. ‘We are not a think tank, we don’t get involved in party politics, but we are the voice of the finance professional.’

Under his leadership, Whiteman promises ‘clear and timely’ responses to the government’s deficit reduction programme, its funding distribution and plans for public sector reform. He will tweet and blog his thoughts, he says, and not be afraid to take a firm line where necessary.

‘CIPFA is a strong brand. It is an authoritative gold standard on proper financial management and governance in the public sector. CIPFA should feel confident in that position and articulate what’s good and what’s bad about the nature of reform.’

Whiteman certainly appreciates how to operate in difficult political circumstances. He was chief executive at the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham when the British National Party was the official opposition. And, of course, he faced criticism at the Border Agency over a backlog of immigration cases and changes to passport controls.

This latter period has clearly been difficult and challenging personally. Having newspaper journalists parked outside your house for the weekend can be disconcerting and upsetting, he says. Being followed by camera crews to and from select committee hearings can be awkward too. 

But Whiteman is a resilient character, and says that his close family – he’s married and has three children in their 20s – helped him to put things into perspective. His background as a singer and actor also helped, he suggests.

‘One of the things about performance is that it takes you out of your comfort zone and stretches you to do things – well, my God, that job was a real roller coaster of stretching me.’

Subsequently, the agency has been abolished and its functions split three ways and brought under direct Home Office control. Whiteman remained in Whitehall and took on the role of director general of operational systems transformation at the department.

He had 900 people working for him on issues such as systems development, operational policy and workforce planning, but it clearly wasn’t the job he’d signed up for two years earlier. However, he says he would only have moved  or the right role, and leading CIPFA certainly came into that category.

‘I would apply to be chief executive of CIPFA any day of the week,’ he says. ‘There is something about CIPFA that is more than the sum of its parts. I’ve always thought that CIPFA membership was the cornerstone of my career.’

So, aside from being more vocal, what other innovations is he likely to make? He says that he doesn’t plan any immediate changes, but will listen and learn before coming up with a development plan.

‘This will be my fourth chief exec appointment, and what I’ve learned is that you go in with an open mind. You have ideas about what you want to do, but you take the first couple of months to listen and talk to staff and stakeholders.’

He expects to agree some targets with the CIPFA council by Christmas. ‘It is time to move on, increase our membership and take the institute to a new place. I am hoping for stretching targets and I will give it my all to deliver.’

Whiteman believes that the time is right to encourage young people into public sector accounting. Finance careers in the private sector have lost their cachet since the banking crisis, and he believes that becoming a CIPFA trainee should be considered in the same category as teaching.

‘It’s hip to be an accountant at the moment. I think it’s really cool to be a public sector one. We should promote the fact that working in the public sector is as cool as it gets.’

Membership growth will be organic. Merger with one of the other main accountancy bodies is not being considered, following the failed attempt in 2005 to combine with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. ‘There is no agenda for merger,’ he says. ‘My job is to make CIPFA a proud and thriving institute.’

Definitely remaining, however, is global ambition – growing overseas has been a fundamental part of CIPFA’s development strategy in recent years and will stay so under Whiteman. The new chief exec highlights the recent set of exams, which were held in every time zone in the world apart from Hawaii. He also expresses delight that 500 people working for the United Nations are being trained by CIPFA.

‘UK public administration and transparency is a strong export brand for the UK. It is one of the things that people respect about the country. I think CIPFA can play an important role in helping that – that’s good for the UK and really good for the institute.’

When Whiteman’s strategy for the institute emerges, he will follow it through with commitment and passion. Those who know him well speak of a ‘glass half-full person’ with a ‘can-do attitude’, who is popular with his staff.

‘He has huge amounts of energy and enthusiasm. He gets things done and makes things happen. He’ll create an energy around the place that I think will only be to the benefit of members and students,’ says Steve Bundred, the former finance director at the London Borough of Camden, where Whiteman worked for eight years.

Bundred, who later went on to become Camden’s chief executive and to lead the Audit Commission, encouraged Whiteman to study for CIPFA’s qualification and supervised his P3 project. 

‘Given Rob’s interest and talent for all things operatic, I shouldn’t have been surprised when he managed to get a mention of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf into his project,’ he says.

Barry Quirk, who later recruited Whiteman to Lewisham, describes him as an ‘absolutely brilliant guy’. While at the south London borough, he introduced a number of equal opportunity measures and did much to make the accountancy profession more reflective of its local population.

‘He’s a real leader/manager. Rob understands the importance of doing things the right way and, crucially, he appreciates how people need to change what they are doing,’ says Quirk.

Whiteman also has the ability to get on with all types of people. He’s as comfortable chatting about his family and his love for West Ham United (with a Hammers mug and iPhone cover to prove it) as he is discussing effective financial management. And, of course, the singing will always get him noticed. ‘I occasionally sing down the corridors where I work,’ he says. ‘The staff better watch out at Robert Street when they hear this bass baritone coming.’

This feature was first published in the September edition of Public Finance magazine


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