Tracy Staines, Inspector General at The Global Fund, has built on her core accountancy skills to ensure huge amounts of money are spent appropriately where they’re needed most.
A key part of the challenge of restoring public trust in the information we use every day is for all institutions to be as transparent about their activities as possible, and to be seen to be so.
For decades, organisations like Transparency International have shown that demanding openness and accountability in public sector activities reduces corruption. One chartered accountant who is leading the way on transparency issues, and whose experience can offer lessons for the rest of the profession, is Tracy Staines FCA, Inspector General at The Global Fund.
The Fund was set up in 2002 following a commitment by the G8 group of countries to make $1.3bn of funding available to combat AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. It has now disbursed more than $45bn of mainly public money to projects around the world – a large chunk of which are in sub-Saharan Africa.
Because it’s one of the biggest funders in the world and because, as Staines says with studied understatement, “we work in some challenging operating environments”, it has always had a strong commitment to being open about how the money is spent.
“Transparency is one of the core principles of The Global Fund, and we take it quite far. We disclose all of our performance data on all of our grantees. We work in some very developing countries, and we're very explicit and open about how we’re performing in those places.”
This extends to publishing all its audits and investigations online, “which is where my job comes in,” she says, “because a lot of organisations have a Head of Audit or Inspector General type roles, but they don't have to publish online all of the failings of their organisations.” This has posed “an existential risk” at times, she says.
However, being this transparent has been crucial in making sure that all parties involved trust The Global Fund to spend what is mainly taxpayers’ money in a responsible way. “With particular donors,” says Staines, “it’s the single most important thing for them.
“If we didn’t have that transparency or disclosure of all that information, they wouldn't fund us, they wouldn't see that it was right. It can be challenging but it's one of the things that raises such a tremendous amount of money.”
Accountants and trust
Staines started as a Deloitte trainee and has divided her career between financial services and the public sector in a series of increasingly senior audit roles. She says The Global Fund’s commitment to transparency isn’t new to her – it’s at the core of her professional training.
“If I go back to my studies when I was learning to be an accountant, the first thing you learn about is the importance of verifiable and credible information.”
Chartered accountants have “got to stand up and tell the truth, and therefore your truth needs to be verifiable.” She also thinks that this is particularly true in the past five years or so. “In the current political environment and especially during the pandemic, the onus is on us to challenge perceived wisdoms and hearsay at the executive and board level.”
While the idea of trust has been at the heart of the profession from day one, what is novel is that reliable and authentic information is now so fundamental to maintaining trust in society that chartered accountants are likely to have an expanded role to play – both in the information they collate and analyse and then how they work with senior decision makers to use that information.
Lessons in data and diplomacy
Staines is a great example of this expanded role. She has to ensure a wide range of very senior stakeholders, including all the world’s major governments, can trust The Global Fund, and highlights three lessons learned as she’s got to grips with her role.
First, she has to deal with a much wider range of data sources than she might have imagined when studying to be a chartered accountant decades ago.
Given she must deal with the funding of projects in those ‘challenging operating environments’, she routinely looks at alternative sources such as the Transparency International index for information such as how much protection is provided to whistleblowers at the country level, “because that's an indicator of law and order, and also an indicator of transparency on how the government operates.”
“We also look at whether the media is controlled, how possible or how capable the government is of enforcing integrity mechanisms, and those kinds of things. Certainly, different positions on those indices are really interesting for us because we get a sense of how we can trust the country's oversight mechanisms” for working responsibly with funding.
Second, Staines thinks chartered accountants need to be more comfortable with the tools and processes for collecting and manipulating data. “You don't need to be the biggest data scientist but you need to understand where your data is coming from, and be able to challenge or interpret the data.”
She says professionals must “accept that data is now a massive part of our lives. And also just appreciate how data can be interpreted and misinterpreted – that's really important for me. If you resist it too much, you're going to have blind spots. I speak to many senior professionals in audit who, with all due respect, don't get it.”
As she has to support senior managers in making difficult decisions, her final lesson has been to hone her diplomacy skills. “In the public sector, particularly the UK public sector, you might disagree with someone vehemently but someone from a different culture would hardly know.”
She explains that her role has “the potential to be incredibly confrontational” and so she has to find a way to get her point across without making it personal but in a way that gets everyone working towards the same goal.
While not always dealing with life and death situations like The Global Fund does, Staines’ ability to coat cold hard data with the velvet of diplomacy is something that many more chartered accountants will have to develop in the next decade or so.