The fearless Pamela Monroe-Ellis
Auditor General packs power in her petite frame
Pamela Monroe-Ellis could not have imagined that her carefree days in St Mary sailing down the hill from her house on coconut boughs – the only girl among several cousins and brothers – was preparation for the job she now holds as Auditor General of Jamaica.
How? Well, not only does that activity have pitfalls, it is not lost on her that her current post could be the same, except, not on her watch. Not with the team she leads. Not with the rigour, integrity and authority of reports produced. And when a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) years ago tested her authority, it publicly demonstrated the substance from which the Government’s chief auditor is made.
Early in her tenure, a former finance minister attempted to introduce a letter into a PAC meeting explaining expenditure in the matter being discussed. It was a letter that should have been sent to her office that may, or may not, have impacted the deliberations.
Immediately she objected to its introduction. The former finance minister pushed hard. She insisted. He pushed back. She pushed back. He backed off.
The unfolding of events was not lost on two reporters in the press box from different media houses who stared at each other asking what just happened. What happened was that a fresh-faced, petite powerhouse put her foot down with impossible calm and dignity, and said no.
Pamela Monroe-Ellis had just delivered a massive body blow to a parliamentary committee, the public and naysayers who had earlier questioned her capacity, suitability and authority for the position of Auditor General of Jamaica.
Standing her ground in her formative years among boys prepared her.
Crediting her father with playing an important role in her life, young Pamela’s first choice of profession was a hotel manager after family visits to the Turtle Towers Hotel.
Her father prompted her to study accounts and the daddy’s girl acquiesced.
“Compared to my children, I am thinking now that I was a very compliant child, as I followed the plan, for accountancy, not auditing, which I would later learn at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), which was my first job,” she shared with The Sunday Gleaner, telling where it all started.
It was there that she completed her ACCA examinations.
Despite her father being the exclusive distributor and later owner of the Encyclopaedia Britannica business in Jamaica, Pamela was not a nerd.
Free-spirited, lover of the outdoors, she is not always hunkered over books, either. She loves to try new things and loves working with her hands.
She also loves interior decorating.
Pamela left PWC and joined her father’s business, but after some time he told her to apply for jobs as he could not pay her the salary her training commanded.
She would later apply to the Services Commission but was called by the Auditor General’s Department and believes she was led there. She began her job on April Fool’s Day (April 1) in 1997, and the rest is history.
The would-be hotel manager became the first woman since John Wilson (1829-1850) to head the powerful Auditor General’s Department.
She pays homage to the man she succeeded, Adrian Strachan, who was her boss for 29 years, before retiring in 2008.
“I applied for a director position, but Mr Strachan called me and said ‘not only are you younger than I anticipated, but you look even much younger than I anticipated’. He said ‘it would not be fair to put you in that position, because people who are twice your age would be reporting to you. But I have a position for you. Senior auditor, two positions below director’. He said, ‘are you interested?’
“I said ‘what’s the scope for growth?’ He said ‘tremendous’. I said ‘OK’,” she recounted.
“Within three months he promoted me to director,” she said, recalling how happy she was, seeing the value she could add to the organisation and its functions. With Strachan possessing the “highest levels of integrity” and learning at his feet, Monroe-Ellis has “never” doubted any report produced by her office.
“When I send a report to Parliament, the weight of my professional requirement goes with it,” she declared.
MENTORSHIP AND COACHING
Mentorship and coaching are critical to young people at all levels, she said, adding that what Strachan provided was fundamental to her own development as a young professional.
“Mentorship and coaching are so important for leadership. It’s preparation. And I consider myself blessed because of the persons to whom I was exposed and who helped me and prepared me for this role. Clearly my mother and father, and Mr Strachan. He retired in 2008 but he is still in my conscience. He saw in me what I did not see in myself,” Monroe-Ellis told The Sunday Gleaner.
She recalled grumbling at Strachan’s regular requirement that she addressed various groups, something she does not like.
“I was cussing to myself that ‘Lord, him can’t find anybody else to go talk. Why every month I have to go and talk?’,” she would mumble and grumble, but comply.
FAIR, FEARED, FEARLESS
Describing herself as “extremely shy”, Monroe-Ellis recalled being frozen in front of three internal auditors, all men, but who were understanding, in one of her first meetings with them.
Strachan told her he identified strong communication skills on her part and it accounted for the regular meetings.
“One thing he taught me is to be dispassionate. Approach my work fairly, because at all times, keep in mind that persons can be affected by that report and it can cause irreversible damage to reputation. Not only that, but to recognise how that report will be used, as it may not be used in the way you want it to. But it should be used for the benefit of all, and it does not matter who is on what side, the response is going to be the same,” she stated.
As a result, “I am mindful that I don’t send that report to Parliament thinking that I have friends. But I send the report being dispassionate, recognising my responsibility under the Constitution of Jamaica and also to the people of this department. They do the work, they know the standard. They know what is expected. We are not interested in speculations. If an opinion is given, it is an opinion based on facts, because I am required to analyse and give an opinion,” she said.
It is on that authority and with dignity, diligence and calm that she has led the Auditor General’s Department for 14 years.
Monroe-Ellis is undaunted by, accustomed to and prepared for the verbal ammunition fired at her over the years. As she puts it, “The dangers of the outdoors shaped me in character building, being free-spirited and never one to get offended by anything or anyone.”
Depending on which side of the aisle her reports hit, many have feared the outcomes. Many have shivered at the announcement that her office is conducting a special audit. Despite the findings, when the petite powerhouse sits before the country’s lawmakers, it is with an impossible calm.
“When a report is going to Parliament, my team members will tell you that I don’t’ know who the persons are because I don’t ask. And reports come to me after they go through the various exchanges with the entity, because when they come to me, I see the report, along with the entity’s response. The first defence the entity has is actually me, because if the report is not matching up, and I don’t see the evidence, I have to take out what’s there,” she said unequivocally.
Integrity has defined her decades in the profession and more so since she has been Auditor General.
“People may believe that I lead everything. No. My leadership is of a different style. Leadership is to empower the officers through training and continuous capacity building, and exposure to the standards and for them to understand what is required of them as auditors, how they are expected to approach their audits with our core values of independence, integrity, professionalism, transparency, objectivity and credibility,” she said.
Pamela Monroe-Ellis has built a strong reputation of impartiality and professionalism, displaying calm and respect even when challenged. She heads an office that continues to do the thankless job of overseeing the effective management of the Government of Jamaica’s financial management systems, making sure they are accountable and compliant with financial management policies.
The petite powerhouse is one of Jamaica’s formidable women and packs power in every report with her signature.