Date posted: 1/12/2016 5 min read

Leading from the front with Lyn Provost

New Zealand’s Auditor-General, Lyn Provost, reflects on leadership, paving the way for other women, and the state of the public sector

In brief

  • Provost was NZ’s first female civilian police deputy commissioner and first female Auditor-General
  • She believes the introduction of tiered reporting to be a very positive step forward
  • Her time in office has included challenges such as the GFC and the Christchurch earthquakes

Photography by Fairfax Media NZ / Dominion Post 

 When Sir Bob Geldof presented New Zealand’s Auditor-General Lyn Provost FCA with an award last November it was her second encounter with the rock star turned political activist.

“I actually saw Bob Geldof in Boomtown Rats somewhere in the late 1970s in the Wellington Town Hall, so it was a quite a different situation to meet him in the second time.”

The more recent meeting was at Chartered Accountants ANZ’s Leadership in Government Awards in Canberra where Provost won the Outstanding Contribution in Public Administration award for New Zealand. It recognises a career that began in the Audit Office and includes high-level jobs in unfamiliar fields, at times as the first woman in the role.

Provost was “completely chuffed” to win.

“It was a great honour to receive it and it was a time to reflect on what I’ve done over my career and see it through other people’s eyes.

“It meant a lot not only to me but also to my family and to my colleagues because an award like that isn’t just one individual, it’s all the people you have worked with over a long period of time and the achievements they have made.”

A leader with humanity

Provost is warm and open in our interview, laughing readily while providing carefully considered answers. However, at times she has been described in the media as “icy cool” and “steely”, and she acknowledges she has to be a lot of things to a lot of people.

But the one quality she believes all leaders must possess is humanity.

“You can’t be a leader without people. I am a leader who is reasonably clinical when everything is going along fine and people are very rarely left wondering what I think.

“But if things go wrong in people’s lives, or something happens, that’s when you see the warm Lyn,” she says.

“Where you see the ice cold Lyn is when things haven’t gone as well as they should have done, for not particularly good reasons. When people lack integrity or are dishonest — I’ve been around a long time and I don’t like that.”

Provost believes her leadership style works well because at its heart is her continual striving to make the public sector better.

“I don’t think anyone has ever doubted that my intentions are to improve the public sector, and with that intention in mind, I will keep going, no matter what the hurdles.”

She attributes this tenacity to stubbornness.

“Which I think I might have been born with,” she jokes.

Taking opportunities

When Provost joined the Audit Office as an assistant auditor, she decided she wanted to be Auditor-General.

“I voiced it as being Assistant Auditor-General initially, and then I used it as a rationale for why I didn’t want to do other things at various points in time. If I could re-live my life I may not have said that,” she laughs.

She says although her career looks like it was planned in order to become Auditor-General, in reality she moved to jobs “reasonably fluidly”. But when she considers a role, the values of an organisation are of utmost importance.

“It has to be something I believe in. And everywhere I’ve worked within the public sector is because I believe in what they do.”

She advises others to take opportunities when they arise.

“The tighter the knot in the bottom of your stomach is about that opportunity, the better it will probably turn out,” she says.

“I wasn’t a public servant and I went in at second tier at the State Services Commission. I wasn’t an archivist and I went into Archives New Zealand. I wasn’t a police officer and I went into the police as a deputy commissioner.”

As a civilian, Provost had to learn the business of policing. She visited every police station in New Zealand and joined frontline police officers on “the beat”.

“I used to go out with them in the cars as well … on patrol and therefore I knew first hand what was happening and what they were concerned about.”

During her eight and a half years with the police Provost was tasked with restoring government trust — and subsequently public trust — following a failed police computer system rollout and a time of historical rape allegations against police, where one of the accused under investigation, Clint Rickards, was an assistant commissioner.

Pioneering spirit

Provost is accustomed to being a pioneer — she was one of only a dozen female accounting students in her class of 500.

She was New Zealand’s first female civilian appointed to the role of police deputy commissioner and is the country’s first female Auditor-General.

The mother of two adult children, whose husband was a stay-at-home dad, attributes this pioneering spirit to her “very matriarchal” family.

“There was always a sense that women could do anything. Except mow lawns,” she smiles.

“That sense of ‘can do’ and a sense that if you work hard you can achieve — you’ve got to set goals, you’ve got to work hard, and you must achieve — were basically ingrained in me from a very young age.”

New Zealand’s public sector

Provost says, in general, New Zealand has a good public management and public finance system.

“When I travel to other countries and they don’t report where their money has gone, what their assets are, how much debt they have, and they are rife with bribery and corruption, I come back to New Zealand and go ‘oh, how lucky we are’.

“But we’ve made our luck. We’ve worked really hard to have a system that’s based on generally accepted accounting principles and also a sense of spending money on the right things. Having said that, every report I write generally says something can be improved.”

She says one of her greatest fears is complacency and that systems stop getting challenged, because there is always a better way to do things.

Earlier in the role, Provost called for public sector chartered accountants to not just be accounting smart, but to have real and meaningful input at an executive level. She says things have improved in the five years since then.

“I think the work Treasury’s putting in to try and make that happen is starting to pay dividends, however I think there’s still some way to go.

“I still think there’s too much focus on accounting for what’s happened rather than planning for the investments and management of those investments going forward. And I still think there’s too much focus on complying and not enough on thinking.”

I still think there’s too much focus on accounting for what’s happened rather than planning for the investments and management of those investments going forward. And I still think there’s too much focus on complying and not enough on thinking.
Lyn Provost FCA, New Zealand Auditor-General (at time of writing)

As for financial reporting, Provost says this have moved significantly over the past few years.

“We have implemented international public sector accounting standards — IPSAS — and it’s only just been implemented so it’s a wait and see, however at least we’re on a track that’s meant for the public sector, not meant for large listed companies.”

On the introduction of tiered reporting — big, listed companies preparing one style of accounts and small, unlisted companies preparing a different style of accounts — she thinks that’s a very positive step forward.

“I think generally the quality of management reporting going to chief executives and boards is of a reasonable to high standard so I think in financial reporting the signs are good.”

However, performance reporting in the public sector is not reaching the standard she desires. She says that while this improved significantly for two or three years, another plateau has been hit and the office is addressing how it can contribute to what happens next.

Challenges and achievements

During Provost’s time in office the New Zealand public sector has faced a number of significant challenges including the GFC, establishing Auckland Council after it became a “supercity” in November 2010 following the merger of regional and district councils, the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes and challenges with collaboration across agencies.

In addition to managing issues around these challenges, Provost has overseen the office’s strategy and put in place a five-year rolling plan for the Auditor-General’s office’s work. She has also been involved in international work to reduce the clutter in financial statements, in addition to the 100-plus reports she’s put out on her watch.

Provost is focused on increasing the visibility and understanding of the Auditor-General’s role, and that of the office, and social media is one avenue being used.

Another response to the ongoing evolution of the digital world is a change in the way reports are sent out — where once they were posted, now they’re sent in a link via Twitter.

The after life

Provost plans to finish up in the role by early 2017 and smiles when considering the freedom.

“My great plan is to have six months of relaxation and rest.”

Three months of this will be spent overseas.

“We’re going on a canal boat with friends and family. We’re going to take a villa in Portugal. I’ve worked more or less at pace for a very long time. I think it will be good for me to take six months to relax and rest and then I’ll think about where to next.”

As for what makes her most proud as she reflects on her time in office: “The fact that I can actually see the public sector changing and improving and I can see the people who work for me having a significant hand in making that happen.”

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.