What’s next for the local government watchdog?

With the dust finally settling following May’s local elections, council administrations are beginning to take shape across Scotland. These new administrations will straight away need to get down to the business of running their councils and planning for the future, and in doing so, are facing some big questions.

How can they continue to provide high quality services for their communities as demographic pressures grow? How will they reduce inequalities at a time when public finances are constrained? How can they meet the increased expectations of the public as the community empowerment agenda takes shape?

As the independent spending watchdog for local government, the Accounts Commission is acutely aware of these challenges. Indeed, we reported on them in detail in our annual flagship 2017 overview of local government in Scotland.

In our Strategy and annual action plan 2017-2022, published today, the Commission has set out our expectations of local authorities over the coming years.  The overriding message of the Strategy is that councils should be able to meet their statutory duty of Best Value by demonstrating a pace, depth and continuity of improvement in their performance. In last year’s engagement sessions with council leaders and chief executives and in engaging with councils in our audit work, the Commission has heard concerns about how this can be achieved within the challenging context that councils are operating in. But continuous improvement isn’t about coming top of every single indicator all of the time. Rather, it’s about choosing clear priorities to focus on, showing how the choices have been arrived at, and reporting clearly to citizens the progress against these priorities and on the quality and cost of services.

With this in mind, the Commission has started its new approach to auditing Best Value, and will be reporting on six councils in the coming year. This will evaluate how councils are progressing a number of priority areas, including: choosing clear priorities and having better long-term planning; redesigning services in a way that goes beyond just making incremental financial savings; ensuring they have the right people in place to plan and deliver these services; involving citizens more in decision-making; and reporting their performance in a way that enhances their accountability to communities.

We have also committed to making sure that all of our audit work contains practical advice for councillors and pointers to good practice. We want our work to contribute to improving local government in Scotland in these challenging times.

Whether you’re a council tax payer, a newly elected councillor, a council officer or just have an interest in local government in Scotland, I’d encourage you to take a look at our Strategy here. And if you’d like to see which areas the Accounts Commission will be focusing on over the next five years, you can find out more on our work programme web page.


About the author

AuditScotland_P_006Ronnie Hinds is Acting Chair of the Accounts Commission and a former chief executive of Fife Council. He also chairs the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland.

Could you be our next Corporate Finance Manager?

We’re looking to hire a new Corporate Finance Manager.  You may well ask, why does an audit organisation need to recruit such a person? Surely we’re already home to plenty of staff with financial management skills?

Well, the thing is, we’re not looking for an auditor – we already have 200 of those!

We’re looking for someone who will be our most important financial adviser. Just as our auditors ensure that public bodies use public money efficiently and effectively, we’re after someone who can ensure that we’re spending the public funds in exactly the same way – generating the most value for the public purse.

The job encompasses all aspects of finance and your contribution will be essential to the development and management of the organisation.

Based in Edinburgh, but working with teams across Audit Scotland, and reporting to the Chief Operating Officer, you’ll be advising senior managers on how to use their financial, physical and administrative resources. You’ll provide advice to the Audit Scotland Management Team and the Board, including drawing up our budget proposals to the Scottish Parliament. It’s a high-profile job within the organisation, but this is where your work and professional advice have a real impact.

We need someone who is keen to learn the detail of our business, the nuts and bolts of how our organisation and finances work. You’ll need this knowledge as you advise senior colleagues and as you get involved in project teams that are transforming our organisation.

We may be a relatively small organisation, but we have a world-class reputation. As we audit more than 220 public bodies across Scotland, our own financial governance and reporting must adhere to the same high standards that we’d expect those organisations to achieve.

Our organisation continues to evolve as we respond dynamically to the changes taking place across the public sector and the arrival of new financial powers for Scotland. Thinking about how all this applies to the financial management of our business will be a core part of your role. And just as our business is changing, your role is also likely to change.

We’re a dynamic, forward-looking organisation. We value our colleagues and our modern, technology-driven workplaces mean there is lots of flexibility in how you can carry out your work, whether it’s working remotely where appropriate or Skype-ing with colleagues and contacts many miles away!

If this job sounds right for you, then call for a chat or apply online.

About the author

Fiona Kordiak is Director of Audit Services, with responsibility for in-house audit services we provide to the NHS, central and local government sectors.

Looking through a public health lens – what did we see?

Audit Scotland has an interest in improving the health of the population – indeed, don’t we all?

How do we know what’s value for money, what works and what’s important to people who use services?  We have a commitment to try and find new ways of measuring the things that matter to people and understanding the outcomes than can be achieved by effective public services.

Public health directors and specialists have a vital interest in accountability and governance in these services – improving and protecting health, ensuring the quality of health and social care services, tackling inequalities and delivering a fair approach to support people to achieve better health.

Public health professionals want to help set the right measures, and we want to use these measures to tell a story about quality of public services and what those services mean to people.

Our common ground is that we both want to assure the public that resources are used in proportion to needs, so that outcomes are being achieved.

That’s why a bunch of accountants, auditors and public health specialists, gathered in Audit Scotland’s Edinburgh office last week to figure out new approaches, make new relationships and to draw out our joint challenges and opportunities. We co-chaired the event with NHS Health Scotland and heard from Neil Hamlet, one of the authors of a 2015 report by the Scottish Public Health Network. We were also joined throughout the day by a range of other key colleagues from the third sector, community planning and housing. This input gave us other dimensions to consider, and a richer discussion as we chewed over some real housing and homelessness-related case studies.

What did we find?

  • That we are pushing at an open door – we agree that it’s all about outcomes and good quality public services for people, at the right time and using resources well
  • We have a pool of expertise that we can use better – we will keep in touch and have already found ways of interacting more effectively together
  • There is considerable power from working together
  • The role of the third sector is vital in delivering outcomes
  • Speaking to people about how they feel is vitally important in evidencing what’s working
  • We like to tweet – over 30 tweets from participants and lots of endorsements that the session was a good use of all of our time.

We also benefitted from the talents of a graphic recorder through the day – Catherine McKay from Listen Think Draw illustrated all of the discussion and you can see some of the images here or watch this video to see what was covered.

About the author

Lorraine Gillies image
Lorraine Gillies is on a 23 month secondment to Audit Scotland from West Lothian Council. A former community planner, she has a keen interest in the field of citizen engagement. She is chair of the housing and disability charity Housing Options Scotland.

What can we learn from public sector ICT projects?

Digital technology has become such a familiar feature in our everyday lives that it can be easy to miss until you stop and take a look around. We can order a takeaway, book a gym class, track our morning bus before we’ve even left the house or speak to friends and family on the other side of the globe; all at the click of a button.

So it’s no wonder that as a society, we increasingly expect our public bodies to use digital when delivering services, or that more and more organisations themselves are placing digital at the centre of their plans for future transformation of services.

However, designing and managing ICT programmes remains a challenge for public bodies. Over the past few years, we’ve reported on a number of ICT projects which have gone wrong or had issues. Last year, when we reported on the Scottish Government’s Common Agricultural Policy Futures programme, we said we’d pull together all the lessons learned from our previous reports, and look to other countries to see if they had any other insights to offer.

We’ve now completed that work and we found that the issues experienced by Scottish public sector bodies are no different to those experienced around the world, or indeed in the private sector.

Today we publish Principles for a digital future: Lessons learned from public sector ICT projects. This summary is intended to help public bodies deliver digital and ICT programmes by setting out five high level principles that should be considered as they plan and manage their projects.

Unlike the work we’ve reviewed, this is not a national performance audit report so we’ve adopted a different format for this publication – it’s digital, interactive and, perhaps most importantly, it’s short and easy to read.

The five principles we have set out are:

  • Comprehensive planning
  • Active governance
  • User engagement
  • Leadership
  • Strategic oversight and assurance

Within each of these, there are a number of areas to consider and these cannot be considered in isolation. All interact to help create the right environment for a successful project, and underpinning everything is having the right skills and experience on the project at the right time. We highlight this by using a handy skills icon at various points throughout the document. Of course, we know finding the right skills can be difficult, particularly in the public sector but past projects show that this is an essential ingredient of any successful ICT project.

We’ve packed the summary with helpful quotes and case studies from around the world to add some flavour and help explain the thinking behind our principles in more detail. We’ve also provided a handy list of articles, and links to useful websites we think will be helpful for people responsible for managing or overseeing ICT and digital programmes.

We will also be presenting our findings at various events in the coming months, including the Holyrood Connect Conference in June, so look out for my colleague Gemma Diamond there.

If you’d like to know more, don’t hesitate to get in touch. We’re keen to hear feedback on the briefing, and whether it’s been of help to anyone thinking about embarking on a new digital/ICT project.

About the author

Morag Campsie is an audit manager and has worked on a variety of financial and performance audits since joining Audit Scotland in 2007. Her recent work includes our report on Managing ICT Contracts in Central Government, and audits of the Scottish Government’s Common Agricultural Policy Futures Programme.

 

Public audit in Scotland: What’s on the horizon?

We are living in incredibly busy times for the public sector in Scotland, with each passing week bringing a new political announcement or debate. With so much going on, it can be hard to think beyond the next few months.

I’ve often heard it said that audit is retrospective in nature, but in fact we spend a lot of time and energy looking ahead to understand what’s on the horizon, what it means for our future work, and what impact we want to have. And we need to make sure that our plans reflect the priorities and concerns of the public and our key stakeholders, whichever policy area we’re focused on.

Our new approach uses these principles to create a rolling five-year programme of audits, which we refresh each year. The results of our latest review are now available on our website, setting out in detail what areas of public spending and policy we plan to report on between now and 2021/22.

The programme covers all of the work that Audit Scotland will carry out over the next five years on behalf of me and my colleagues in the Accounts Commission, the local government watchdog. It’s based on consultation with a range of stakeholders; for example, as Auditor General I report to the Parliament’s Public Audit & Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee and we consulted with committee members to see how the audit risks we’d identified through our work matched what they want to see from public audit in the coming years.

As well as the audits of specific policy developments across the public sector, I’d like to highlight a couple of areas that will inevitably affect much of the public sector, and all of us who use public services in Scotland, in the long-term.

First off are the historic changes taking place in Scotland’s public finances, with new financial powers coming on stream through the Scotland Acts 2012 and 2016. We reported our latest update to MSPs last month and will continue to report on this annually. This commitment reflects the scale of the work that will be required of the Scottish Government and others to successfully implement and manage the new powers.

We’ll also continue to expand our high-profile work on Scotland’s NHS, with audits of the NHS workforce, children’s mental health services, and health and social care integration all in the pipeline.

And there’s lot more, right across the public sector, from ferry services and widening access, higher education to fire reform, digital to community justice. We’ll also continue to explore different ways of making our work accessible to everyone with an interest, building on the range of ways we already report our work.

If you’d like to know more, you can find out who to contact here.

About the author

MM6A8690croppedCaroline Gardner is the Auditor General, and Accountable Officer for Audit Scotland. She started her term in July 2012, and has more than 30 years’ experience in audit, governance and financial management. Follow her on twitter @AuditorGenScot

 

Reflecting on the Accounts Commission’s refreshed work programme

With council elections in Scotland having taken place last week, this seems an appropriate time for the Accounts Commission to set out its plans and work programme for the next five years.

As the weeks of campaigning by political parties and candidates drew to a close last week, newly elected local councils across Scotland are now preparing for the major challenges they face in delivering on their policies and priorities, with less money available  from the public purse.

As the independent watchdog for local government in Scotland, the Accounts Commission plays a prime role in holding councils to account for the money they spend and helping them improve their vital services to the public. Therefore, our strategy and our work programme reflect the complex financial environment which councils operate in, new approaches to service delivery and national policy developments that have a major impact on the operations of local government.

Together with the Auditor General, we’ve adopted a new approach to our future work programme, to be taken forward by Audit Scotland. The programme is planned over a five year-period and updated annually to ensure that our strategic priorities are aligned with key changes in our environment.

As Acting Chair of the Commission, it is important to me that we continue to ensure that we are as effective as possible, that we respond constructively to feedback  from our stakeholders and that we continually ask ourselves how we can  maximise our impact  in this crucial time for Scottish public services.

So what’s to come in the next five years?

Central to our future work is a refreshed approach to Best Value audits of councils, and we’ll report on six or seven individual local authorities each year. These reports provide valuable information and insight for councillors, officers and local residents on the performance of their local authority, and how councils are  dealing their with financial challenges and growing pressures on services – a situation that applies to every council in Scotland.

Our new approach re-emphasises the importance of continuous improvement in councils, and we want to see auditors focus and make judgements on the quality of services and positive outcomes for local people and communities. The first batch of audits is already underway.

As well as reviewing the performance of individual councils, we’ll continue to provide our annual review of the local government sector as a whole. In 2016/17 we piloted a new two-part approach to this audit, publishing separate reports on the sector’s financial health, and its service performance. The feedback from councils and other stakeholders was positive and we plan to continue this approach in future.

There’s also a key role for the Commission in reviewing, commenting on and informing how national policy developments are impacting on service design and delivery within councils. As such, we’ve a number of audits planned in this area, from early learning and childcare, to employability and community justice. In some areas, we’ll work closely with the Auditor General, to provide a dual perspective on how policies are being implemented at both a national and local level.

If you’re interested in our work, it’s worth keeping an eye out for a few important announcements in the next few weeks – we’ll publish our annual report for 2016/17 as well as our refreshed strategy and engagement plan. They’ll be available on our website, and we’ll be working hard to communicate these and engage with newly elected members and officers as they adjust to a new chapter in their respective councils.

About the author

Ronnie Hinds is Acting Chair of the Accounts Commission and a former chief executive of Fife Council. He also chairs the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland.

Looking ahead: our work programme

Audit Scotland, on behalf of the Accounts Commission and Auditor General for Scotland, implemented its new approach to programme development about 18 months ago. An important part of that was introducing a more strategic five year rolling work programme, which gets refreshed every year. We did our first formal refresh of its content last December and have published the results today.

Our approach involved taking stock of the unprecedented changes that have been taking place in Scotland, the UK and beyond over the last year, such as Scotland’s New Financial Powers and the outcome of the EU referendum, and what they might mean for our work. We also gave careful consideration to whether the timing was still right for some of the work to which we’re still committed as part of our rolling programme, for example, our planned series of reports on health and social care integration.

A key objective of our new approach to programme development was to ensure that our work is focusing on important issues, where the insights that audit can bring will add value and help make a positive difference to public spending and policy in Scotland.

That being the case we’ve consulted lots of people, both formally and informally, on the key priorities and what our work should focus on. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank anyone who fed in to this process, as the contributions that we received were all valuable and helped us to shape our work plans going forward.

The feedback we’ve had so far has been positive, but we’re not complacent. Over the coming year we will be working hard to broaden our engagement with different groups of people who use and deliver public services in Scotland.

We’ll also be trying out different ways of communicating the messages from our work so that we play our part in improving the key public services that make such a difference to so many people’s lives across Scotland. You can find out more about the different ways we report our work here.

In the mean time if you have any comments on the work programme, or our approach to programme development, find out how to get in touch by visiting our website.

About the author


MM6A7183Antony Clark is an Assistant Director at Audit Scotland.

Auditing historic change in Scotland’s public finances

On 1st April, the Scottish Parliament gained control of income tax rates and bands, higher borrowing limits, and the management of the Crown Estate in Scotland – and there are more new powers to come.

The Scotland Act 2016 is fundamentally changing management of the public finances and, once fully implemented, half of what is spent in Scotland will be raised here and the budget will be subject to greater uncertainty and volatility than ever before. With more control over public finances and new opportunities and risks, it’s clear that we’re entering new territory.

The scale of change needed to implement and manage the new financial powers is significant and it’s important that the Parliament and the public can see what progress is being made. As the public spending watchdog, Audit Scotland has carried out extensive work in this area.

On Thursday, I’ll join the Auditor General, Caroline Gardner, and colleagues to present the findings of our latest report on managing new financial powers to Holyrood’s Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee. We looked at how the Scottish Government, Revenue Scotland and the Scottish Fiscal Commission are introducing and managing the range of powers devolved through the 2012 and 2016 Scotland Acts.

We found that the Scottish Government is well-organised to deliver new tax and spending powers. It has updated its structures for overseeing the new powers and has good programme management processes in place. Revenue Scotland is also making good progress in preparing for further devolved taxes, and the transition of the Scottish Fiscal Commission to a statutory body is being managed effectively.

The new powers will substantially change the type and volume of work the Scottish Government will do. We found that the Scottish Government is identifying the staff and skills it needs, but recruiting enough people with the required skills may prove difficult. We recommend that the Scottish Government build a clearer picture of potential future costs, to help plan how it will fund implementation of the new powers within its budget.

In this changing environment, a more strategic approach to public financial management and reporting is needed. This includes a medium-term financial strategy based on clear policies and principles. The Scottish Government is taking steps to provide a more comprehensive picture of the public finances, as it’s important that the Parliament and public have the information they need to understand and scrutinise the government’s financial decisions.

MSPs will have the chance to discuss these findings in detail with us this week, and the session can be watched live on Parliament TV.

We’ll continue to report on the progress of public bodies in implementing and managing the new financial powers. If you’re interested in our work in this area, our new e-hub on financial devolution has a range of reports, exhibits, briefings and other useful tools.

About the author

MarkTaylorMark Taylor is an Assistant Director in Audit Scotland. He is responsible for overseeing Audit Scotland’s work relating to financial devolution and constitutional change.

Scotland’s NHS workforce: The current picture

Major challenges lie ahead for the NHS in Scotland. As I reported last year, there are growing pressures on NHS boards which are struggling to juggle service delivery and progress major reform, at the same time as managing considerable financial challenges.

cover_nhs_workforceNearly 160,000 people work in Scotland’s NHS, which provides vital services for millions of us every year. Their hard work and commitment, sometimes in life-or-death circumstances, is always to be admired. However, the NHS faces challenges if the workforce is to meet the growing demands of our ageing population and adapt to new ways of working.

We know that our audit work on health and social care in Scotland has a role to play in the wider debate about what’s needed to transform these services and make them sustainable for the future.

Building on our recent findings, we’ve begun a new two-part audit to evaluate how the Scottish Government and NHS boards are tackling the issues, through workforce planning and national and local initiatives. The first report focuses on overall workforce planning and workforce pressures in hospitals and will be published in summer 2017. The second is due out in 2018/19 and will explore primary care and GP workforce issues.

In advance of our first report, this briefing provides some key information on the shape of the current NHS workforce and sets out some of the issues that we’re delving into during the course of our audit.

About the author

MM6A8690croppedCaroline Gardner is the Auditor General, and Accountable Officer for Audit Scotland. She started her term in July 2012, and has 30 years’ experience in audit, governance and financial management. Follow her on twitter @AuditorGenScot

The story behind Self-directed Support

About £8 billion was spent on providing social care last year, and as the public spending watchdog, we’re really interested in what that funding is achieving for the people who deliver and use these vital services. We’ve done a lot of audit work in this area already, and we’ve reported that these services face tough challenges, like coping with rising demand alongside financial pressures.

Under the policy of Self-directed Support (SDS), people accessing social care services are able to choose where, when and how they receive care. This was a major change to the way services were delivered and, when the legislation first kicked in, Audit Scotland reported on how ready the Scottish Government and local authorities were to implement the new way of working.

Just over two years on, we want to see how well things are going. I’m part of the team carrying out Audit Scotland’s latest review of self-directed support, on behalf of the Auditor General and the Accounts Commission.

At this crucial early stage of the new approach, it’s very important for us to understand what’s being delivered for the people who need support. So we’ve launched a survey asking users, their carers, friends and family to share their stories of using SDS in 2016 and 2017.

We want to hear about your journey, from approaching the authorities for help, to having your support needs assessed, to making choices about how you’re supported and agreeing a care plan.

Did you feel your needs were understood by the assessor? Were you given a range of options? How is your support managed now? Were you ultimately satisfied with the outcome?

Your experiences will be invaluable to us in understanding how the changes to social care are affecting people. It’ll help us shine a light on what’s working well, and what still needs to be improved, as we pull together our key findings and judgements.

You can share as much or as little detail as you like, and if you’d rather talk to us in person about an issue you’ve highlighted in the survey, we’d love to hear from you – just include your contact details.

We’ll run the survey until the 27th February, so please share the questionnaire with other users and carers, so we can gather as many stories as possible.

Thank you for your support.

About the author

zoe

Zoe McGuire, Auditor, joined Audit Scotland in January 2014. She has been involved in auditing community partnerships at national and local level, as well as Best Value audits of East Dunbartonshire Council and Moray Council. She is part of the team carrying out the 2017 audit of Self-directed Support.