I was part of the team which carried out the audit of Best Value in Falkirk Council on behalf of the Accounts Commission, the public spending watchdog for local government.
Our extensive audit work included interviewing councillors and senior officers. We held focus groups with councillors so they all had an opportunity to contribute their views on what was happening. Staff were also invited to take part in a focus group to help us understand how certain issues affected their work, and how services were being delivered to the people of Falkirk.
We also reviewed a wide range of council documents and observed meetings of the council, its committees, and senior staff. This allowed us to check how effective the council was at conducting its business.
We reported what we’d found to the Accounts Commission at its 13 August meeting. The Commission published its findings this week, alongside our audit report.
The Commission noted that Falkirk, like every other council in Scotland, is facing a tighter financial future due to reducing budgets and increasing demand for services.
While Falkirk Council generally delivers a good standard of services, it’s identified that it must make £46 million of savings over the next three years. So, it can’t continue spending at its current level. Commission members have significant concerns that the council’s approach to this challenge is inadequate to ensure that service standards are maintained and improved.
The council needs to increase the scale and pace of change, by being more ambitious when thinking about how to transform services, at the same time as identifying savings. Stronger political and managerial leadership is needed to plan and deliver services differently, rather than relying mostly on cutting services or increasing charges to help make savings.
The audit team also spent a lot of time looking at the council’s political management arrangements. Given the challenges Falkirk Council faces, it needs collective leadership from all councillors to make the difficult decisions that will be needed, and to see them through.
New procedures were introduced to improve political management and scrutiny in 2013, but some councillors did not take part in some aspects. These arrangements were refreshed in May this year and early indications are that councillors are now participating, though it’s too early to say how effective these will be.
There’s also room for further improvement in the way councillors scrutinise and hold staff to account on how services perform. For example, some meetings where councillors consider the performance of important public services are held in private. Good practice suggests they should be open and transparent, so the public can clearly understand if services need to improve and how the council plans to do that, particularly as any changes will have a direct impact on local people.
The Accounts Commission has asked us to report back on the council’s progress by the end of next year.
You can read the report, and the Accounts Commission findings, here.
About the author
Tricia Meldrum, senior manager, has worked at Audit Scotland since 2001. She’s worked on a wide range of audit reports looking at various areas of the public sector, including local government, health, and the Commonwealth Games.
The Accounts Commission is the public spending watchdog for local government. It holds councils in Scotland to account and helps them improve. It operates impartially and independently of councils and of the Scottish Government, and it meets and reports in public. For more on the Commission’s roles and responsibilities, click here.