Special Feature: An interview with Martin Clarke CB

Martin Clarke, the retiring Government Actuary, reflects on the potential, drive and skills of the Government Actuary's Department and his 9-year tenure as the head of GAD

Martin Clarke CB, Government Actuary

What drew you to the role of Government Actuary and the Government Actuary’s Department?

Really it was the professional challenge. As an actuary, the role is a prominent position in our profession, although public service actuarial work was not something I had much experience of. But I was up for the challenge. Above all, what drove me was the belief that actuaries can help people make better decisions and, in this role, help government make better decisions.

That belief still drives me. An actuary may not always be your first point of call, but we have a lot to offer when it comes to decision making that shapes the delivery of public services.

As a former client of GAD’s – I was then at the Pension Protection Fund – I had a little idea of what to expect when I joined. I just didn’t then fully appreciate the extent, nature and reach of the department’s work.

“The thing that drove me was the belief that actuaries can help people make better decisions.”

The actuarial profession often considers long-term risks. However, we’ve just been through a significant period of reactive work supporting the response to the COVID pandemic. Do you feel that’s the constant nature of GAD’s work, balancing the short and long-term?

You’ve always got to be driven by the client’s focus, which in turn is inevitably going to be driven by events. That’s the nature of government work.

Over my time as Government Actuaryin the last 9 years, the context in which we have been doing our work has certainly been a radical one - indeed we became much more accustomed to the use of the word ‘unprecedented’.

The COVID period hit us with so many different challenges.

We had to make ourselves available for all the COVID emergencies. That was a period where secondments really took off and colleagues worked on impactful emergency programmes.

Plus, we had special tasks of our own, for example, in relation to the emergency schemes HM Treasury put in place to support the insurance and events industry in various ways.

Each client had their own perspective on what it meant to their area of work. There were challenges for existing clients and for new clients, alongside the ongoing challenge to make sure people knew that actuaries could help.

At the same time, we were worried about our own health, the wellbeing of our colleagues and adapting to working from home. So, that was a real exercise of rising to a challenge of almost war like proportions.

It was a defining moment where we saw the very best of what we could do. We realised our skills were in demand and we made sure they were available.

Do you feel the need to adapt to those events has meant your role as Government Actuary has changed, or more broadly the role of actuaries in government has changed?

I cannot see that my role has changed, though the context in which we’re working certainly has.

I think that greater realisation that risks, no matter how unlikely, can materialise has really given us added purpose to deploy our skills.

The world is now more receptive to talking about the damaging events that can happen, and how we might limit the impact of their effects. There’s a greater realisation that things can go wrong. It may be the seemingly unlikely eventualities, those that we never previously thought about in a very meaningful sense that we now want to make more provision for.

There’s also the greater recognition of the importance of data, and the need for experts to interpret and analyse that data. I think this is a lesson that is going to last.

On an internal (to GAD) basis, it’s led to the recognition that we can do things differently and at a moment’s notice. We’ve demonstrated great flexibility which has been highly commendable.

All in all, the experience gave us a lot more credibility and helped to fuel an appetite for the sort of services that GAD can provide.

“There’s also the greater recognition of the importance of data and the need for experts to interpret and analyse that data. I think this is a lesson that is going to last.”

Is there something you consider a defining success for the department over the last 9 years?

We’ve been on a journey to upgrade our skills and technologies, to deliver a better service and be more efficient in the process.

Along the way we’ve broadened the reach of GAD, in terms of the nature of the work we can do. That’s been a delight to be part of.

Unleashing the potential of doing things differently, using technology, concentrating on how we can help clients and investing more in our own skills, I think is paying dividends. But you’re only as good as your last gig. So, it’s got to continue, it’s not a process that ends.

Reflecting on that broadening reach, and our place within government, do you feel that’s been made possible by partnering with clients?

Partnering is something that has grown over time. It was already part of the department’s style, going back before I landed here, but there have been more opportunities recently.

We’ve been able to use secondments more as a way of partnering with clients, often working as part of multi-disciplinary teams on a particular project. That enables us to be embedded within those departments, to better understand their challenges and help develop solutions.

We’ve joined up with the wider government Analysis Function, which has really gained momentum and mobilised in recent years. We are recognised by that community more so now, which means we are more likely to get opportunities to feed into their projects and wider work.

Partnership is the way forward. We can’t be an island of expertise, that’s only called upon in emergencies. We must network to find the most appropriate ways we can deliver our services and, with things like secondments, find the most appropriate financial model to deliver them as well.

“We can’t be an island of expertise, that’s only called upon in emergencies.”

Partnering with other organisations has helped accelerate our expertise in climate and disaster risk. Given your previous roles in advocating for things like sustainable investment, has GAD’s increased involvement in this area been reassuring?

My association in this area goes back to my roles in the insurance world, where I was part of pioneering responsible investment in the 1980s and ’90s. There was a sense back then that you were on a mission to embrace wider perspectives within corporate activity.

The world has changed, in so far as a lot of that thinking has become more mainstream, but the challenge has grown particularly in relation to climate risks.

There’s still quite a journey for the whole world to go on – individuals, corporates and governments - to establish some level of equilibrium over the changing climate. It affects every part of life.

With the skills that actuaries have, it seems almost obvious that we ought to have a role in understanding these risks, the consequences of them and planning mitigations. So, it’s great to see us being able to contribute to this space.

If you’re looking for an area of work that’s going to grow, climate related topics would be one of them.

What will you miss most about your role as Government Actuary?

I know it’s a cliché, but I will miss the people.

I think one of the great pleasures of my role has been seeing and enabling potential to be turned into reality. Be that a project that evolves from a blank sheet of paper to a stunning bit of work for our clients or seeing colleagues develop and flourish in their roles. To be involved with those things is a real privilege and they are what I will miss the most.

What, in your opinion, will shape the role of GAD in the future?

I suppose, given that I could not predict what was going to happen in the 9 years I was about to have in 2014, I’m probably not a particularly good soothsayer. But there are 3 main things.

Firstly, the financial risks faced by the public sector are huge and so the demand for expertise, like we have, to quantify that risk and help develop mitigations will continue to be a big driver of what we do.

Secondly, client expectations ought, rightly, to become more demanding and we should expect this. Looking for novelty, looking for innovation, looking for insights. Not just a handle-turning compliance exercise, though that is sometimes necessary, but assurance that we will look at a problem from all angles to offer the best advice and solutions.

Finally, technology. We’ve been doing more with data science and artificial intelligence; adopting those modern tools and techniques. We expect to see more from these applications and need to employ that in a sensible way to deliver a better service, more efficiently to our clients.

I think the potential, the drive, the energy, and the skills of the people at GAD are really something to conjure with.

I’ve always thought that the opportunities for new people, including my successor Fiona Dunsire, to come in with new energy are there to be taken. They are opportunities to do things differently. I have nothing but optimism about that and wish you all continued success.

Government Actuary's Department