New CIPFA president takes on the world

CHRIS BILSLAND always wanted to be a bookmaker. As CIPFA’s new president, he takes up the mantle as public service providers are facing their toughest challenge in decades. What makes a would-be turf accountant right for the job?

“I have experience at the highest level of being a chief financial officer, which is at the heart of CIPFA’s work,” Bilsland tells us.

He might be referring to his 13 years as treasurer of Somerset; or his post as lead financial adviser to the Local Government Association; or even his past presidency of the Society of County Treasurers.

As chamberlain of the Corporation of London, Bilsland does not lack current experience. Chamberlain is an old-fashioned word for a finance director, and Bilsland is 79th in a line that stretches back to 1237.

“I’m based in London, which makes it easier for me to undertake a lot of the duties of the role,” he adds.


Member needs

So, what do CIPFA members want from their institute and its new president? CFOs are calling for assistance in the tricky business of cutting spending, and cutting it fast. Regional members need outreach to help them support CIPFA people on a local level. At the same time, the institute is “being very sensitive” about training new accountants against a backdrop of wide-spread recruitment freezes.

It is a tall order, and one that is sharpened by a half-million black hole in CIPFA’s 2010 accounts. Having saved more than £4.5m thanks to cost-cutting measures, a stubborn £5m drop in income throws into relief the huge challenge facing an organisation with more demands on its resources than ever before.

Savings were made through “sensible housekeeping”, Bilsland asserts. In CIPFA-speak, this means a pay and recruitment freeze while finding ways to deliver services without stumping up for costly events, often online.

Despite all this cost cutting, the shortfall remains. Bilsland concedes that balancing rising member needs with falling resources is “a big question”. “We put our efforts into those areas where we can really make difference.” This means government, large institutions and devolved parliament, although Bilsland claims: “We never say no. If HMRC asks us for help we’re not going to say we’re too busy, we’re going to find someone who can do the work.”


Money talks

CIPFA’s commercial arm has suffered amid client belt tightening. Total income slipped by £104,000 in 2010, a result of “very difficult trading conditions in [its] markets as public bodies prepared for significant funding reductions”. The business “can take as much as we throw at it”, Bilsland says. But it is unlikely to be snowed under any time soon.

Foreign markets could offer CIPFA the activity it craves. Bilsland is planning to devote 50% of his energy to developing the institute’s international work, and this might be no coincidence. “There are countries in the world that are very keen on UK systems of governance, particularly public finance. We’ve got quite a lot of demand for our advice and support abroad.”

The World Bank in particular has work for the taking. As the only accountancy institute on the planet that specialises in public finance, CIPFA is “well heard and well located on the issues”.

African nations seeking to improve public financial accountability have come knocking and, through the World Bank, CIPFA is talking to nations “which are interested in UK styles and systems of public finance”.

However, at a time of belt-tightening, this cash-hungry consultancy line could be directing much-needed money away from struggling UK members.

CIPFA considers its international work “part of [its] charitable activity”, as the expense of working in foreign climes is not fully met by fees. There is a net residual cost that is covered by the institute’s commercial arm, and this sets it apart from profit-seeking organisations.

So is Bilsland turning away from lacklustre Britain, lured by the promise of a glamorous global persona? He admits that the focus of his presidency is half domestic, half international. This outlook should build CIPFA’s overseas profile, but is it diverting the institute’s attention – and finances – from UK members in their hour of need?

“The institute’s commitment to members in the UK is unwavering,” Bilsland insisted. However, the financial crisis was global, and so are its consequences.

“If CIPFA doesn’t show leadership and work with governments, accountancy bodies and the finance profession internationally, we won’t be helping to achieve the step change in public financial management which is essential to rebuilding sound public finances globally.”


Five years for success

CIPFA is part-way through a five year review, and Bilsland is non-committal on its success. “It’s going okay,” he proffers, less than enthusiastically. A shifting financial backdrop could scupper the plan and the last year has seen “a toughening up of the economy”. For this reason, CIPFA is debating whether more must be done to batten down the hatches.

Presuming the plan pulls through, where does Bilsland see CIPFA in five years? “Bigger and more influential in the UK,” is the confident response. “We need to be more agile and enterprising.”

On the international scene, Bilsland is just as ambitious. CIPFA is already “quite influential” overseas, but its new president wants to see this grow and the institute take up a leading global role.

Nevertheless, matters at home might drag Bilsland’s attention back to the mainland. As government financing shrinks, gaps are opening up in the provision healthcare, policing, higher education and more.

“There’s so much change in public services – and most of it has a financial impact – that above all else we need to ensure we are in those areas of change, giving the kind of advice and support necessary to help public sector organisations navigate their way through.”

Fighting words for an embattled institute, but this would-be turf accountant fancies his chance of success.

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