This CPA is making history in public sector finance
CPA Carlene Alexander is helping to guide the evolution of public sector finance (Photography by Vanessa Heins)
Little did she know, but Carlene Alexander’s career—23 years of public service in finance and business roles—was building toward a position that, until just over 12 months ago, didn’t exist.
Last year, the Ontario government created the Office of the Comptroller General in a proactive attempt to protect taxpayer dollars.
In October 2020, Alexander, a CPA, was appointed to the role of Ontario’s comptroller general and, in a first for any province, awarded a deputy minister title for the position.
As comptroller general, Alexander’s mandate is to improve risk management practices across the provincial government. That means anticipating business risks and offering proactive guidance to ministries and public sector agencies in order to strengthen the management of public funds.
The goal is to bring a renewed emphasis on forecasting and managing operational risk, and enhancing internal oversight over the province’s financial management practices. The deputy minister title marks a new direction in public sector accounting that may influence provinces across the country to establish similar positions.
“I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to lead new ways of thinking and doing in the Ontario Public Service,” Alexander says, adding that the office has the opportunity to help “leave a long-lasting mark on the way government operates.”
The timing makes Alexander’s new job particularly relevant—and challenging.
“There’s no more critical time to be moving into this role,” says Bailey Church, KPMG National Public Sector Accounting Advisory service line lead, who recently served as chair of the CPA taskforce working to develop an accounting standard on public-private partnerships. “When you look at the implications of public sector finance coming out of the pandemic and moving into a very long and slow economic recovery, the demands are going to be unlike anything we’ve seen in generations.”
Church cites debt levels in Ontario coupled with a rate of spending he says is at an all-time high.
“This is a harder job in many respects than after the Great Depression.”
Despite being raised in an underserved North Halifax neighbourhood, Carlene Alexander never allowed circumstance to dictate her future.
Alexander hails from a family experienced in building and bettering communities. Her father, Carl Gannon, founded the Black Invitational Basketball Tournament in Halifax and her uncle, Lou Gannon, is president of the African Nova Scotia Music Association. Growing up, Alexander dreamed of making her mark and working in government. She envisioned one day being in a prominent leadership role in Canada’s public sector and set out to establish the type of resumé that could make her dream come true.
She studied commerce at Dalhousie University and later obtained an MBA from Laurentian University. After graduating from Dalhousie, Alexander began her career with RBC before taking a job with a small accounting firm in Vancouver.
“Having both an MBA and CPA provide me with a broad range of skills and competencies that help me to be successful.”
From there she spent two years back home in Halifax working for the Canada Revenue Agency as a tax auditor, followed by five years as a senior analyst with the Treasury Board Secretariat in Ottawa. In 2003, while still in the position, she earned her CPA designation. Just two years later, Alexander was named director of financial planning and reporting with Environment Canada before moving to Toronto in the summer of 2007, where she continued her climb up the organizational ladder.
Alexander held director positions with Human Resources Development Canada, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs and was named CFO of Housing York Inc. in Ontario’s York Region.
In March 2016, Alexander was appointed the executive superintendent of business services and chief financial officer with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and, by August of the following year, had been tabbed associate director of operations and service excellence. There, she applied her expertise to the school board’s budget process, business services, capital planning and portfolios.
In June 2020, Alexander was named TDSB’s interim director of education, tasked with developing back-to-school plans for a September wave of students. Then, in October, she transitioned to the comptroller general position, confident her experience and qualifications had prepared her for the role.
“Having both an MBA and CPA provide me with a broad range of skills and competencies that help me to be successful . . . It’s not only in the areas of financial and business acumen, but also in enabling competency areas such as strategic thinking, effective decision-making and leadership, which are essential for success as an executive in any role,” Alexander says.
A recent KPMG study on the impact of COVID-19 on global governments concluded that government finance functions could best demonstrate their value through high-quality financial reporting and by assuming the role of strategic advisors.
“Finance,” the report noted, “has a unique opportunity to lead governments through the COVID-19 pandemic and into the next phase of economic recovery.”
CPA Carlene Alexander is ready for the challenges faced by her office as well as many other government bodies (Photograph by Vanessa Heins)
The vastly drained reserves left by the pandemic have helped accelerate the modernization of public sector finance. But there were signs of a transformation even earlier as innovation took shape in Canada and abroad.
“Pre-pandemic, governments were already realizing that they required capital and spending beyond their traditional sources,” says KPMG’s Church, who has nearly 20 years of experience in financial management, accounting, financial reporting and auditing matters within the public sector. “We have seen moves to things like greater engagement of the private sector and public-private partnerships. A lot of governments around the world have either some form of a balanced budget legislation or restrictions on debt or deficit that really impact their reporting objectives.”
Colin Lynch, the managing director and head of global real estate investments at TD Asset Management, says the comptroller general position is critical in holding everyone internally in the government accountable while ensuring that taxpayers are getting the best bang for their buck.
“With the scale and size of the government, there’s a lot of expenditures in many areas,” he says, referencing numerous hospital and university boards he has been on. “I have seen first-hand the significance of provincial funding; there are whole networks of agencies that are funded by the province. The internal audit function ensures those monies are spent wisely.”
The Office of the Comptroller General consists of three divisions under Alexander’s purview that co-ordinate risk functions across government.
One is the Enterprise Risk Office, headed by chief risk officer Ingrid Robinson, who is also a CPA. In fact, all divisions of the Comptroller General Office are run by CPAs.
Robinson, a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, oversees the enterprise risk management process and provides strategic corporate leadership and direction to implement modern risk management practices, tools and processes.
In the Ontario Internal Audit Division, chief internal auditor Beili Wong, an FCPA and the former vice-president of audit and risk with the LCBO, is responsible for modernizing and shaping the independent internal audit service across the Ontario Public Service, with an emphasis on transparency.
The third office, the Office of the Provincial Controller Division (OPCD), provides strategic oversight on financial reporting and direction for government assets.
“This,” notes Alexander, “is the stewardship role to help ensure prudent management of taxpayers’ dollars and safeguarding the province’s assets.” The OPCD develops financial statements for the provincial government and works on various issues with the auditor general, who, in contrast to Alexander, is responsible for internal auditing of government spending.
The division is run by provincial controller Maureen Buckley, CPA, who has held several leadership roles across the Ontario Public Service and is responsible for maintaining Ontario’s public accounts, preparing the annual report and consolidated financial statements for the province. Buckley’s office also provides accounting and financial management advice to the government and ensures that effective financial systems, control policies and practices are in place.
Navigating uncertainty amid a pandemic, while simultaneously charting a new course, will be exacting for Alexander and her team.
“Depending on the political direction of Ontario,” says Church, “the priorities of the government in office will really emphasize what that role is going to have to deal with.”
With the next provincial election due no later than June 2, 2022, that political direction remains uncertain.
In the meantime, with little appetite for austerity in an unstable financial environment, Church predicts Alexander will be forced to manage multiple competing priorities.
“How do we carry out significant infrastructure projects that will support the pandemic recovery in a fiscally constrained environment? And, at what point does [the provincial government] say we need to start slashing programs and services to constrain our deficit?” he asks.
TD’s Lynch has some questions of his own: How do we know that public money is being effectively spent? And how do we measure that effectiveness?
In addition to providing those answers, he anticipates Alexander and the comptroller general role to have a particularly significant impact in today’s political climate, where transparent accounting is key to establishing trust.
“Governments have more challenges to solve today than 20 years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an expansion of the role of government in our society. Discrimination and racism, an aging population that creates more demands on the health care system, mental health and the opioid crises all pose major challenges,” he says. “At the same time, the need for accountability is increasing...Ordinary citizens are holding a bigger microscope to government.”
Alexander is up to the challenge.
“It can feel a bit overwhelming that we are charting a new course,” she admits. “However, I have always operated with the mindset that continuous growth and evolution—even if it’s outside of your comfort zone—is important.”