He may have been described as humane, but it’s no surprise that David Adams, outgoing CIPFA chief executive, had to face angry institute staff within weeks of taking on the top job. After all, his first major decision had been to make 20 employees redundant on arrival.
Adams, who retired last week, says he read the description of himself in the press when he took on the job. But as he now stresses, ‘unpalatable decisions’ cannot be shirked.
Dealing with the furious staff that day was ‘cathartic’, he remembers, a turning point in dragging the body out of a crisis brought about by a huge deficit and a falling student roll.
‘All the anger, angst and upset came out. It was a very tough experience, but it was also a very good one because we got things out in the open.
‘The staff had the opportunity to vent their anger on the person who had caused it. After that, everything started improving,’ he says now.
As Adams leaves his post, to be replaced by former Warwickshire County treasurer Stephen Freer, the accounts show CIPFA in a much healthier state than the one in which he found it.
When he arrived the public perception of CIPFA was of a body in trouble.
Accounts showed a £500,000 deficit, student numbers were falling dramatically because courses were not cost-competitive and poorly marketed. And the organisation was, in Adams’ own words, ‘top heavy’ and in need of ‘streamlining’.
He confesses that some areas of CIPFA were actually in danger of being seen from outside as being in competition with each other.
Already a CIPFA council member, Adams says that when he arrived, he had ‘no illusions about the sort of job that needed to be done’.
But as he leaves, the position of the institute is now transformed. Gone is the deficit and in its place is a surplus of £500,000. Student numbers are up, with registrations rising 10% last year and the best January and February on record. A relaunched education and training programme costs half the amount it once did and is much more ‘aggressively marketed’. IPF, the institute’s commercial arm, is now turning over £12.5m and expects to report pre-tax profits of £1.5m.
And what’s more, according to Adams, the membership is much happier than it was. And that is an important achievement for a body that relies heavily on volunteers.
However, he is reluctant to take all the credit and maintains the institute was better placed when he started than press cuttings revealed.
‘There was an underlying strength. The reputation of the institute was probably as high as it had ever been with people like policymakers and the other institutions. It was just a question of reshaping it.
‘Member disenchantment goes with the job. For us this was a concern because it seemed to be growing and we are very reliant on volunteers. A member came up to me at a lunch and said: “David, you’ve really turned round the profile of the institute with its members”. It was a comment which showed that there was a need to improve members’ views of the institute,’ he says.
Adams cites the redundancies and the landmark staff meeting as his two worst moments while leading CIPFA. It was the first time he had laid off staff and it took its toll.
Restructuring required reduced numbers but though it was ‘not a pleasant thing to have to do’, it was, says Adams, important to ‘remove uncertainty’ before rebuilding the organisation.
But if he thought just turning the institute around was difficult, the attempted merger launched by ACCA came as real trial. ACCA bypassed the CIPFA executive and sent out a mailshot directly to members. Absorbing most of his time during the summer of 1998 the merger diverted attention from the main business of the institute.
He says the issue of merger is now ‘dead in the water’ and describes the attempt as ‘doomed from the outset’ and ‘surreal’ because it never amounted to more than assertion and counter assertion on respective websites.
Leaving the trials behind, Adams believes CIPFA is now perfectly placed to move forward. The environment in which the institute moves has changed.
Development of public service is back on the agenda under Labour and this, he says, will bring new challenges for CIPFA members. The body has recognised the world is more competitive and polished up its act.
For himself, Adams plans a retirement filled with very little. Vague plans to travel is all that is on his agenda. But for CIPFA he sees a more active future. ‘There are enormous opportunities,’ he says. ‘And the institute is in the right position to take them.’
‘The public sector is set to take off’
After piloting Best Value at Warwickshire County Council Steve Freer may be just the man to chart CIPFA’s course through a period of massive upheaval in the public sector.
After joining the institute on 1 February, Freer’s month-long handover with out-going chief executive David Adams is over. He sees the future of CIPFA as exploiting the radical changes ripping through local government, the most traumatic of which is Best Value.
‘We have to free ourselves from the mindset that the public sector is in decline. The public sector is about to take off,’ he says.
Freer’s career has taken him through the public sector, into the private sector and back to public service.
Spells at Birmingham City Council and Nottinghamshire County Council were followed by a period as a management consultant with the then Coopers & Lybrand. He left the firm to become county treasurer at Warwickshire, a former Coopers client. There he handled an annual turnover of £400m involving 18,000 staff. The department gained a reputation for innovation in quality assessment.
But his focus now is on the change in the public sector and how CIPFA can grab opportunities brought about by the government’s ‘challenging’ focus on ‘performance and outcomes’ – terms used by Freer almost as watchwords.
CIPFA, he believes, has a ‘natural contribution’ to make to measuring and improving the quality of public services.
Central though are his aims to maintain the institute’s recent achievements and build upon them.
‘Although we are in good shape we need to work hard to sustain good performance,’ he says.
There are other targets too, though he is reluctant to share specifics at this stage. The institute should take a greater role in ‘influencing modernisation’ through technical work, such as its recently published Best Value Accounting Code of Practice, and encourage more public services to adopt CIPFA training.
Other areas for growth include the specialised private sector, and taking the institute’s services abroad.
‘As a chartered body with all our history in public service, there is a sense in which that makes us blue chip on the international stage,’ he says.
Optimism is the key word from Freer to his members and a plea to continue contributing to the work of the institute.
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