“They’ve got Charles Counsell – he’s one of their own”

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Charles Counsell – tPR’s new CEO

 

As a kid I always preferred home-grown, beat the expensive imported stuff.  So it seems does the Pensions Regulator – who’ve eschewed the great and the good and gone for one of their own.

Those of us who have been involved in auto-enrolment know Charles as the quiet man who made it happen.

Not one for the limelight, there is little known of Charles before he joined the Regulator in 2011. Here’s what he’s put about himself on Linked In

“Charles was appointed Chief Executive of the Money Advice Service in June 2017.

Charles spent six years prior to this as Executive Director of Automatic Enrolment at the Pensions Regulator (TPR) where he was responsible for the successful UK roll-out of this programme, working alongside DWP. In his time at TPR, the automatic enrolment programme led to over 7.5 million workers newly saving into a workplace pension from over 500,000 employers.

Charles was awarded an OBE in 2017 for services to workplace pension reform.

He has spent much of his career setting up and leading major change programmes in both the private and public sectors in the UK and overseas.

Charles is also a trustee of South Somerset Citizens Advice.”

Although Charles is from Bath (a neighbour of Steve Webb) he has a flat in Brighton and when he left tPR for the Money Advice Service, it was felt by those who knew him – that he’d be back.


A man to manage change

Like John Govett at the Single Finance Guidance Body, Charles is not a pensions geek. Indeed his qualifications are as a management (change) consultant.  He speaks feelingly of his time setting up tPR on the blog he wrote when leaving tPR to (temporarily) manage the Money Advice Service as it was subsumed into the Single Guidance Body.

It was as I was coming back to Brighton from my home in Somerset last weekend that it finally dawned on me.

This would be my last Sunday commute back to Brighton as an employee of TPR, a place I feel proud and passionate to have worked at for over 10 years.

To say TPR has changed since I started would be something of an understatement. When I first set foot in Trafalgar Place in 2005 as part of the team that would create TPR out of its predecessor organisation OPRA, there were around 200 members of staff – about a third of the people we still house in the same building complex today. After a short spell working elsewhere I returned to TPR in January 2008 to bring the Employer Compliance Regime team, who were then part of DWP, down to Brighton. Our remit? To set up and launch a programme that would give all employees access to a workplace pension. It would be called ‘automatic enrolment’.

There were six of us in a ground floor room at Napier House, faced with some enormous challenges. The first of these was to support DWP on what the legislation would actually look like. The fact that over half of the original team still work at TPR has been a real positive for the organisation, giving us a real understanding of the intricacies of AE law (I honestly believe there is nothing that Gillian McNamara does not know about workplace pensions and automatic enrolment), and a solid continuity of knowledge as the team has expanded.

The biggest challenge, once we had got our heads around the legislation, was how we were going to roll it out. We had many discussions with our stakeholders, NEST and the DWP, and were all in agreement that the implementation could not be a big bang with all employers going live at the same time…this was certainly going to be a disaster.  We would need to introduce the changes in a controlled and measured way. But how? I believe that the staging approach which was ultimately adopted, starting with the largest employers and setting the tone, was the single most important decision we made – and, even in retrospect, the right one.  Yes, it created a profile that looked like a mountain range to climb, but with careful planning and great care even the highest mountains can be climbed.

With change of the size of the AE programme there are always large risks, the biggest of which was how small employers would behave. Because of this unknown quantity, we insisted on the creation of a test group of employers – known as ‘pathfinder’, who we would monitor throughout the process to see how they fared and from which we could refine our approaches. It was from this learning that we developed our duties checker and five simple steps. This was hugely beneficial to employers.  It was also hugely beneficial for the industry – the pension providers, advisers and payroll bureau all of whom could understand how employers would react to AE and then adapt their processes.

Subsequent employers have all benefited from this, and those employers in this test group also benefited from the huge attention that was placed on them.

The fundamental building block of AE is known as ‘nudge theory’, and we’ve worked hard with the government’s behavioural insights team to make it work for our programme. It doesn’t just involve harnessing inertia – although that is a key element of AE – it’s also about getting the tone and messaging right in our letters, so employers feel like they’re doing the right thing, and that everyone else is too.

Rarely does someone leave so unassumingly. Charles is someone who puts the work first and himself second, this is his strength and he will need it.


An immediate challenge from Frank Field.

If anyone believes Charles’ current low-profile can be maintained, then they need to understand the nature of the role he is taking on.

Charles’ predecessor, Lesley Titcomb is the object of Frank Field’s opprobrium and many feel that it was Field’s implacable hostility to the Pensions Regulator that led to her resignation. As a tPR lifer, Charles is clearly going to have no easier time from the Work and Pensions Select Committee, than did Lesley.

I am not sure whether this approach is either right or fair, but it is the reality that Charles Counsell faces and the issues around DB funding and in particular the Regulator’s behaviour towards failing DB sponsors that will be most under public scrutiny.


One of our own

But tPR is not just about DB funding. To the world outside the DB bubble, the Pensions Regulator is about workplace pensions and their management through auto-enrolment.

To the 1m +  employers who participate in auto-enrolment, the Pensions Regulator is the boss.

This subtle change in pensions dynamics is missed by many who are close to DB.

To those who work in and with payroll, to the business advisors of the SMEs who drive auto-enrolment and to the workplace pensions themselves – Charles Counsell is “one of their own”.


A boring choice?

Appointing Charles Counsell as the CEO of the Pensions Regulator is a safe choice. Charles is not contentious – as Steve Webb is and would be. He is not a “new broom”, as Frank Field wanted and he’s certainly not the headline grabber.

Like John Govett at SFGB, Charles Counsell is a change management man. Someone who works from the inside to make things happen well.

Whether he can break from pupae to butterfly and promote the Pensions Regulator as Lesley Titcomb has, is his and tPR’s challenge. His appointment should give David Fairs space to get on with his agenda of policy change ,  I am sure he will need the support of those within Napier House and will get it. Charles Counsell will lead a well-functioning management team.

I expect that he will get the support of those who know how effective he has been in establishing auto-enrolment. I notice he has already garnered some support from Adrian Boulding (see comments).

But whether he will win the support of the wider pensions community – is still to be tested.

He can count on my support.

About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen, Director of First Actuarial, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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1 Response to “They’ve got Charles Counsell – he’s one of their own”

  1. Adrian Boulding says:

    Mine too!

    Adrian

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