Education: Stroud Girls High School,St Catharine's College, Cambridge.
Career: 1985-89 product development actuary Mercantile & General Reinsurance, 1989-91 consultant at William M Mercer, 1991-97 senior engagement manager McKinsey & Co, 1997-2000 self-employed consultant, 2000-01 head of strategy at Swiss Re.
Career ambition: To contribute to making the pensions' framework more easily understood and a more acceptable part of people's lives.
Life ambition: To be happy and to do lots of different things.
Likes: Travelling, London, the theatre, eating out, fresh air.
Dislikes: Cigarette smoke.
Car: My husband drives the car.
Peers say: “She is very impressive and able but in a very understated way – she doesn't make a song and dance about her skills. She will do the job needed at the PPI in an exemplary way.”
For someone who hopes to take the Government to task over its creaking pension system, the Pensions Policy Institute's first director, Alison O'Connell, is at first meeting a rather softly spoken, diminutive figure.
It does not take long, however, to realise that when it comes to pensions and the complexities of the system, she is not afraid to speak out.
She certainly has a colossus of industry expertise to front. The institute was the brainchild of the Pensions Provision Group – the group set up at the request of the Government in 1998 that included the likes of Scottish Equitable pensions development director Stewart Ritchie, Legal & General's Adrian Boulding and Aon Consulting's Tom Ross, to name but a few.
The PPI went live last week and is meant to be a permanent research institute, chaired by Tom Ross. It has the original PPG members as its first council.
O'Connell says: “The PPI intends to continue what the PPG started – in-depth research looking at the landscape of pension policy and analysing the trends of saving for retirement. We are an independent body and will provide expert and authoritative research looking at the long-term view of pension policy.”
She takes the issue of pension provision very seriously and is currently finishing off a masters degree in gerontology at Kings College, London.
A stepmother to three children and step-grandmother to seven grandchildren, she is fascinated by “the whole sociology and even the biology of ageing – what it is like to be an old person in our society, how older people are viewed”.
O'Connell is so keen to be the voice of the great unpensioned, she volunteered herself for the job of heading the PPI after hearing the PPG's recommendation and is now proud to say she “has the best job in the world”.
She wants the institute to become a vocal authority on how the problems of saving for retirement can be addressed.
She is critical of the way that pension policy has developed in the political arena. “The whole system is creaking under the weight of years of incremental changes. The system has been going in the wrong direction because Government policy has always been to make changes this way.”
O'Connell believes the Government must make itself heard on the future of state and private pensions provision. “The Government has to start saying 'We will provide for you but above a certain limit you are on your own' but that message is not being articulated very well at the moment.
“We will ask why people do not save. What would make them save more? What about the state pension age – should it be raised? There is a desire to retire early but not many can afford a long retirement. What is the role of the state in pension provision?”
But O'Connell is no abstract academic – her last job was head of strategy at Swiss Re. Having realised at an early stage that there is more to life than being an actuary she has spent most of her career in corporate strategy.
It was the frustration of always having to react to Government policy that led her to look at how pension policy is formed. She has some sympathy with the pension industry and the challenges it faces in coping with policy changes.
She says: “The industry must find it difficult with what the Government throws at them. For example, what is best advice on contracting out? Providers are pulled at both ends – required to give good advice without the information or leeway to do it.”
It is still very early days for the institute and O'Connell is busy recruiting staff to begin research papers. She is hoping to have seven full-time staff at full capacity and is inviting around 70 of the industry's experts to become governors.
Radical change, however, is not off the agenda. O'Connell says policymakers should not be afraid to go right back to the drawing board and start again.
“If only we could draw up a blueprint of how pension policy could be – that means starting with a blank sheet of paper. That is what a good government should be doing. If you are constrained by incremental changes you will not always get the fullest answer.”
She is already facing a quagmire of pension arrangements that she barely understands. She says: “Am I contracted in or contracted out? I have been employed, self-employed and a mature student in a relatively short career. I have basic state pension, Serps, occupational pension and personal pensions.It frightens me to see how complicated the whole system is.”
O'Connell”s interest in the ageing population and her desire for the institute to provide “dispassionate” research for the Government should make for a focused institute.
Right now, two weeks into the job, she is focused on the more immediate necessity of finding central London office space.