This article was first published in the February 2017 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

There are some imposing offices in central London but none creates an impression quite like the workplace of Enver Enver, finance transformation lead at the Cabinet Office. Where else could you stroll past the office of the chancellor of the exchequer, while Big Ben chimes in the background?

This is where the country is run. The Cabinet Office exists to ‘support the prime minister and ensure the effective running of government’. It co-ordinates the delivery of government policies and programmes but also sets the efficiencies and reforms designed to improve the running of government. And in recent years, that has come in for quite a transformation.

It seems hard to believe, but it has only been over the past 12 years or so that financial discipline and professionalism have been introduced into government. Remarkably, until 2004 there was no requirement for the finance directors of government departments to hold a financial qualification. The drive to improve financial management began in earnest only at the start of the millennium. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the resulting austerity programme subsequently served to hammer home a new emphasis on efficiency and value for money in public services. 

A seat at the table

It has been – and still is – a huge and fundamental transformation, and Enver has been at the business end of much of it. ‘Demand for public services will always outstrip supply,’ he says, ‘so we have to operate within the limits of the money available. Austerity has been the key driver for change. We are making the most of available resources and making sure that we’re working together. 

‘There is a lot more due diligence around expenditure today than there ever was before, and finance professionals finally have a seat at the table. We’re part of the decision-making process, spending less time crunching numbers and instead getting involved in asking questions of the business we are serving and in making decisions. It’s not too much to say that finance professionals have changed the trajectory of government.’

Enver has seen the financial transformation of local and central government first-hand since he joined Wandsworth Council as a teenager. ‘It was the end of the 1980s and I realised that I needed a recession-proof job,’ he says. 

He began with AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) training, moving to Surrey Council and staying there for 10 years, during which time he gained the ACCA Qualification. 

‘I studied with ACCA off my own bat with no time off. My father was also an ACCA member, and the qualification has served me very well. I liked that I learned things in my studies that I could immediately apply in the workplace.’

He describes the first 10 years of his career as ‘learning and understanding the public sector’. He then moved to the NHS, becoming assistant director of finance at what would soon become the country’s largest primary care trust. 

‘That broadened my horizons. I was in a strategically thinking, decision-making role, dealing with change management.’ His work at the trust involved the UK’s first pilot programme to introduce unit costing and pricing tariffs so that trusts around the country could be re-charged for residents taken ill and treated elsewhere. The resulting system is now widely used throughout the NHS.

From there he moved to the most senior finance role at Epsom and Ewell Council. ‘At that point the work was beginning to reduce the size of the finance function, and that caused people to begin to work more collaboratively and innovatively,’ he says. Enver concentrated on bringing together departments and people who traditionally had not had much contact, breaking down the silo-based culture often found in government. 

Career nurture

If there is a downside about working for the public sector, it is that staff have to be more focused on career management than they would perhaps be in the private sector. Enver says that he has always had to keep on top of career decisions: ‘The thing is, people don’t tend to leave good jobs in the public sector that often. You have to look after your career. At this point I had worked for 16 years in local government and for three years in the NHS. So I was thinking, what next?’

A headhunter solved his dilemma with a call that ultimately resulted in him becoming deputy director of financial management at the Home Office. It turned out, though, that the Home Office was lagging behind local government in terms of finance transformation. ‘It felt like I’d gone back in time,’ Enver says. ‘It was quite archaic in terms of processes and systems, and a lot of the finance people were generalists with no specific finance qualification.’

Under his guidance, the Home Office set out on a path of modernisation and financial professionalism. Eighteen finance specialists were recruited and a formal finance training regime set up. When his boss moved on, Enver was made director of financial management and estates – an FD-level post with responsibility for a budget of £2.7bn. 

A little over a year later, trouble was brewing in the form of stressed travellers, packed arrival halls and very long queues at Heathrow Airport. The Border Force was in crisis, and, with the London Olympics just a few months away, the problem needed solving very quickly indeed. A strong track record in change management and transformation meant that Enver was the man they called.

‘I found myself managing functions I’d never been in charge of before,’ he says, ‘more than 25 of them, including all corporate functions and even operational functions such as the dog-handling team within the National Drugs Seizure Unit. But I was amazed how much of what I’d learned in my accountancy training I could apply laterally.’ 

He began by bringing together the heads of each unit to discuss what they were doing and how they could help each other. ‘Some of them didn’t even know of each other’s existence.’ 

He also encouraged private sector thinking. He oversaw the introduction of ‘premium services’ and the choice to pay a fee for a faster service or a shorter wait. After months of ‘long, long days’, the Border Force was working efficiently, the queues shrank and the press moved on.

Enver is now the second most senior finance professional in the Cabinet Office and a strong advocate for a career in the public sector. ‘One of the best things about it is that you don’t have to change organisations to get exposure to different things. When I’m recruiting I look for strong political antennae and emotional intelligence – you need to be able to read a room and adapt your style accordingly. Personality is very important.’ 

Finance professionals have become crucial to the smooth running of government and are in high demand. A rewarding career awaits the right candidates, as well as the knowledge that they could make a real difference to people’s lives. 

‘I get a real sense of fulfilment out of working in the public sector,’ says Enver. ‘You can face a lot of criticism and challenge, but there is an immense amount of job satisfaction in contributing to the transformation and improvement of public services in the UK.’ 

Liz Fisher, journalist