National Treasurer: Kirstin Baker Has Played a Key Role in One of the UK's Most Important Institutions. She Explains How Her Work Became Vital to the Country's Interests during the Financial Crisis and Reports on the Ongoing Changes in Her Department
Holmes, Lawrie, Financial Management (UK)
What are your main responsibilities?
I'm finance director for the Treasury Group and I manage the department's finance team, as well as its commercial, IT and estates functions. The group includes the Debt Management Office, UK Financial Investments and various smaller bodies, as well as the core department. I'm on the Treasury board and the board of UK Financial Investments. With an HR director, I jointly manage the corporate centre group, which comprises more than 150 people.
In some ways we're the back office that provides services to the business, which in the Treasury is policymaking. The finance team also gets involved in some of the more complex transactions that the department undertakes. For example, there is a project team working on the mortgage interest guarantee scheme that the chancellor announced in the budget. We will work with that team on the detailed design of this scheme. I also take a sort of non-executive role in some of these large projects: I will sit on the steering board or on the project board for undertakings with significant financial or operational risks.
How closely do you work with politicians?
At the moment I play a supporting role to other Treasury officials who work with ministers very closely. The ministers decide which policies they want to pursue, but they rely on officials to advise on how best to achieve the objectives they have set. We do challenge them if we think that a proposal will not work in practice. Part of my role is to ensure that the advice we are giving on the costs and benefits of different options is robust, so that the permanent secretary, Sir Nicholas Macpherson, is satisfied that any spending we commit to will represent value for money.
How much pressure is the Treasury under to achieve cost savings?
Like most central government departments, the Treasury has been reducing its budget and staff numbers. We are going from more than 1,200 employees to about 1,000 over three years, making it a pretty small department by Whitehall standards. This process, which will shrink the corporate centre as well, is the result of 2010's strategic review.
While making such savings, we need to ensure that we can still provide the service to ministers we want. We've restructured and we have really pushed for more flexible working. We now have some staff in a central project pool, so that we can move people quickly when priorities change. The Treasury often has to respond rapidly to new policy priorities or external events, so we're getting better at deploying people where they're most needed. When the Cypriot financial crisis struck in March, for instance, we were able to bring some people in very quickly, as we had lists of individuals who had worked on similar events. We were able to get the desk space ready for them and we have an IT system that enables them to work quite flexibly.
We've also made savings on some of our back-office costs. For example, we have moved to desk sharing and let out the office space that this has freed up in our building, reducing the net cost to us. We will also be sharing some of our corporate services with other Whitehall departments to obtain economies of scale.
How did you develop your career, given that you started at the Foreign Office?
After gaining a first-class degree in history and politics at the University of Cambridge, I joined the civil service fast-stream development programme as a generalist. I wanted to work in public service and was interested in the political decision-making process.
I joined the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in 1993, where I specialised in European issues and EU negotiations. I studied for 15 months at the Ecole nationale d'administration, where French civil servants are trained, and later spent time working at the European Commission in Brussels. So I spent a decade in various different EU-related jobs--at the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office and the European Commission. …