Raymond Doherty 5 Jun 2018 04:23pm

A day in the life: Ian Ailles

Ian Ailles speaks to Raymond Doherty about his experience as a City banker, CEO of Thomas Cook and now director general of the House of Commons

Caption: Photography: David Bebber

How I changed career

I got a call from a headhunter and he told me what headhunters usually tell you: ‘This is a unique job.’ I was doubtful. He explained it and I thought, you might be right. The role was created on the back of a review to consider the governance of the House of Commons. It has evolved over hundreds of years and it’s never had a director general before. I was joining an institution and didn’t have any experience of the public sector.

There were a few things at the back of my mind when I took it. It was a place where I thought I could make a difference. When I talked to people they said there’s so much you can do here – so much rebuilding and a huge list of to-dos. And as one personal coach said to me when I was in my early 40s: ‘Ian before you retire, try and do a job that when you explain to your grandchildren over a beer, they get it.’ This probably ticks that box.

Everyone in the UK thinks about Parliament, but there is no entity that is Parliament other than a descriptor for this building. Parliament is made up of the House of Lords and the House of Commons and the senior official in the two houses has traditionally been the clerk. They sit in front of the speaker helping the speaker run the session. If you go into the clerk’s office there’s a board that names each one going back to 1300. There was a series of departments that reported to the clerk but no IT system to worry about back then and government looked after the buildings. This role was recognition that the system was in need of modernisation.

Challenges I’ve overcome

The restoration and renewal of Parliament is a big project. When I came here people knew it had to be done but it wasn’t a done deal. What I’ve tried to do in two years is gather the evidence that has allowed the two houses to vote on doing it. Part of my job was to turn the thought into reality.

A couple of months ago they voted to move out of this palace. We are now working on a plan to provide temporary space. Around three-quarters of the refurbishment work will be doing the basics: rewiring, heating, lighting. If you’ve ever had your house rewired, you’ll know that you spend a lot of money and in the end it looks the same. With the amount of taxpayer money we have to spend to do that, around £4bn, it is quite a political challenge.

The most likely scenario is that we move out in 2025. We’ve had every location idea under the sun sent to us – from a cruise ship on the Thames to moving every six months. We are separate from government but we do have to be quite close to where government sits to function properly. Moving around the country wouldn’t work – nearby premises would be best.

That’s a number of years down the line. We’re also spending £200m a year on other projects. Big Ben, one of the most iconic sights in the UK, will cost around £60m. Westminster Hall is almost 1,000 years old – we’re doing some rebuilding work there. So there is a lot of work going on before we even get to refurbishment.

Being apolitical is an absolute prerequisite for this job. Occasionally politicians will try and tempt you into positions and you’ll say ‘no’. As an official you have to present a series of options, rather than saying, ‘you must choose this’.

There is a degree of unpredictability. You could argue I’ve been lucky or unlucky. The speaker said to me recently it’s like you’ve been in Parliament 25 years: you’ve seen a change of prime minister, an election, a referendum, and a cyber security attack. I’ve also experienced a terrorist attack [on 22 March 2017]. I was in my office that day and you could hear the shots. I was with the head of security at the time. He had to get straight out of here and help control the incident.

My responsibilities

I ensure the facilities are working properly to allow Parliament and its committees to meet. Part of our role is outreach into the wider population. When you work in a traditional organisation surrounded by traditional buildings it’s sometimes hard to embrace modern ways of working; getting separate teams to think together. The person who is guarding the door is as important as the person writing the committee minutes – all part of one team. It’s about implementing change. Having different ways of working; using technology in the right way.

Typical day

I get into the office around 7.30am. That gives me at least an hour to get stuff done before other people arrive. I leave between 6pm and 7pm.

I spend all my time within the palace and surrounding site. When I was at Wyndham Hotel Group I travelled 180 days a year. I think I’ve travelled once in this job. Less travel means you have more time – I’ve got a family of teenage children who are growing up fast.

This job has a different kind of pressure. You look at the news constantly and you do so from a different perspective. How will it affect us? If the PM recalls Parliament when it’s not sitting we have to be back in 48 hours. If that happens on Christmas Eve we have to be here on Boxing Day.

Industry quirks

In the private sector if the CEO says we’re going to do something, the business basically does it.

In my role, if I say I think we should do this, then I have to buy in a large number of stakeholders to support it and give it political air cover. Even then there will be a debate. We support the art of debate here and the organisation reflects that.

There’s so much diversity in this job. I’ve got everything from the sergeant at arms who carries a mace, to a cyber protection team who are in their 20s, to security, to a lot of builders and different specialisms in between. Within 2,600 staff you have 50 or 60 trades.

How the ACA helped my career

It’s a passport; one you can keep showing and that everyone recognises has a value.

Habits of an accountant

I might not be the CFO but I can still scan a set of numbers and understand them pretty quickly.