Making waves in the public sector

Apr 01, 2020
Joan Curry, who recently joined the first female majority board of IFAC, discusses her varied career in the public sector.

Joan Curry is Head of Finance at the Department of Transport, Tourism & Sport; ex-chair of the Chartered Accountants Ireland Public Sector Interest Group; member of Council at Chartered Accountants Ireland; and a board member of the International Federation of Accountants. Add to that six children and a keen golfing interest, and one could reasonably say that Joan leads a hectic life.

In terms of her professional career, Joan had an interest in figures and accountancy from an early age. “I was the eldest of five children, and my mother and father both worked outside the home,” she recalled. “We swam and my father was treasurer of the swimming club. I helped him with the money, so it was a subliminal introduction really.”
At school, Joan and three friends were the first pupils of Mercy College in Coolock to do higher-level maths. “It didn’t occur to us that we were trailblazers or anything like that,” she said. We just did what we did. I got an honour in maths in the Leaving Cert, so I suppose I always had a head for figures.”

No college fun

Joan planned to do a commerce degree in university when fate took a hand. “My brother’s football coach was an accountant and he called to the house one evening and convinced me to become a Chartered Accountant by working for an accountancy firm,” Joan said. “I took that advice and qualified with Smith Lawlor & Co., now JPA Brenson Lawlor in 1988.”

Joan completed her training contract and qualified in 1988 when she moved into industry with Nokia with a desire to gain commercial experience. Nokia was a tissue paper manufacturer, and Kittensoft was its major brand. The company was a big player in the Irish retail FMCG scene at that time. As a financial accountant, Joan was responsible for budget and financial management including the preparation of accounts for consolidation into the European group headquarters and, subsequently, for the United States when it became part of the James River and Georgia Pacific corporations.

Looking back, Joan reflected: “In practice, you are engaging with clients annually. There is more continuity in industry; you are part of decisions and can see their cause and effect and results.”

It wasn’t all work in Nokia, however. Joan made up for the lack of fun at college as she met her husband in Nokia. “I married the site engineer after he left the company,” she said.

A wide and varied career

Joan has spent the past 18 years in the civil service in several roles that have broadened her capacities. She gained extensive experience in multi-disciplinary environments and brings all of that to bear in her current financial role with the Department of Transport, Tourism & Sport.

Joan’s career in the public sector began with a contract role as a project accountant for the Department of Finance, as it implemented the JD Edwards financial management system. This was later extended into a contract of indefinite duration. In 2011, Joan moved to the Department of Public Expenditure & Reform on its formation to work in the Government Accounting unit, the standard-setter for government accounts in Ireland. There, she built relationships with colleagues in both finance and internal audit in each government department. Joan also spent three years as Head of Corporate Services for the National Shared Services Office.

A role that Joan particularly enjoyed while working in the Department of Public Expenditure & Reform was a secondment as Secretary to the Public Service Pay Commission. This was a non-financial role, utterly different to anything she had done before, and involved supporting the Commission in its examination of recruitment and retention matters in specific areas of the public service. Joan managed the research, contribution and report-writing phases of the Commission’s work and engaged with the public sector employer, union and other stakeholders in the process.

Current role

Joan joined the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport as Head of Finance in August 2019 and her role covers “vote and expenditure management, financial management, risk management, and responsibility for the procurement framework”. The use of the term “vote” serves to highlight the differences between the public sector and private sector accounting practices. This refers to the financial allocation made to a department or public body by the government, which is approved by a vote of the Oireachtas.

The differences run deeper than mere terminology, however. The State doesn’t utilise private sector financial reporting standards, nor does it prepare its accounts on an accrual basis. Joan is a firm believer that the State’s move to re-examine this area and consider the use of accrual accounting is the right one. A change in policy here would be consistent with OECD guidance on the matter Joan stressed.

Joan reflects that, in contrast to government accounting, local authorities have been engaged in an advanced form of accrual accounting since 2002. They prepare their accounts in accordance with an accounting code of practice, which complies with FRS102 where applicable.

The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has an oversight role in various bodies under its aegis and at times, Joan’s expertise is called on by departmental colleagues directly involved in the oversight function. “It extends into the transport sector – public transport, roads, local authorities, and then we have the tourism industry and Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland and the breadth of activity they are involved in to attract tourists. It goes right down to sport and grants to local clubs. I didn’t realise the breadth of services involved until I started working in the department.”

And unsurprisingly, there is no such thing as a typical workday for Joan. “There is a huge variety on any given day,” she said. “I try to look at it in its different compartments – vote management, financial management, risk management, and procurement. Those are the four key areas I try to interface with every day.”

At the time of writing, the COVID-19 pandemic was taking up much of Joan’s time. “We have been engaged in emergency planning and contingency planning and arranging for staff to work remotely and so on. The staff here have been really fantastic,” Joan said. 
Joan is also working daily with critical stakeholders on liquidity funding strategies to keep key transport systems and supply chains going – getting people and goods to where they are needed in light of COVID-19.

Volunteer work

Joan is a Fellow of the Institute and a Member of Council at Chartered Accountants Ireland. She is also a member and former Chair of the Public Sector Interest Group and recently became a member of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC).
Joan describes her initial introduction to the Institute’s Council as the result of ‘a tap on the shoulder’. “I was approached to run for Council and I agreed. It all goes back to networks. I play in the Chartered Accountants Golf Society and have made some great contacts there. Within an hour of seeking nominations, I had ten nominations and I only needed seven.”

Joan’s next step came when she was asked to go forward for the IFAC board. “I was nominated by Chartered Accountants Ireland and was short-listed. I went for the interview and was fortunate enough to be invited to join the board. Being there for Ireland is an immense honour, and being able to contribute that public service perspective is also very important to me.”

The 23-member board includes 12 males and 13 females. “It’s gender-balanced, and the overall diversity is great,” she said. “I have four girls and two boys, and I have always stressed to them the importance of equality.”

Life outside the office

In Joan’s view, one of the best things about working in the public service is the scope offered to do other things. “The support I have received over the years has been invaluable,” she said. “I got better at managing my time and learned that I don’t need to be involved in everything that’s going on. I have improved at delegating and saying no. I have also learned that the time you spend on yourself is good for you and your employer. If you’re not feeling good, you won’t perform at your best.”

When her children – Aisling, Ciara, Dearbhla, Shane, Sonia and Karl – are not keeping Joan busy with various college, school and extracurricular activities, she can be found on the golf course. “It’s the perfect place for headspace for me,” she concludes. “And a little competition as well!”