Working to achieve better public services

by Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland

ABOUT a year ago public service delivery was turned on its head. 

Vast sums of money were being spent to cope with the pandemic, and there was a huge shift to digital. Overnight, Audit Scotland became a virtual organisation. 

That changed landscape and the sheer pace of events meant our reporting had to become more agile and responsive, while maintaining audit quality and looking after our colleagues’ wellbeing.

We want our work and reports to be used widely so that they inform and help public services improve. We were already producing shorter, sharper briefing papers before Covid-19. Subjects included drugs and alcohol services, the student loan system and ways to get the best outcomes from public spending. But they were infrequent. Pieces of work with wider scopes tended to take precedence. 

They included reports on the NHS and the Scottish Government’s financial management – which you’ll still see in 2021. A report on education with the Accounts Commission will also publish before the end of March. And Audit Scotland’s annual auditing of over 200 other public bodies has continued throughout the pandemic, albeit remotely, after we flexed how we do this work to reflect the pressures public bodies are under.  

But those core pieces of activity have increasingly been balanced out by more ‘real-time auditing’. Briefings, for example, on tracking the pandemic pound; more blogs; and greater use of our website to tell stories about the challenges facing Scotland’s public sector.  

And those challenges are the greatest since devolution. The pandemic has highlighted long-standing inequalities – from health to education. A likely rise in unemployment will put pressure on public finances and Scotland’s social security system. There are backlogs in our NHS and courts and questions about the sustainability of social care. 

The rapid pivot to services being delivered online – which has brought genuine benefits – also raises important questions about equity of access to services. Especially given levels of digital exclusion in terms of geography and deprivation. 

Leadership challenges remain, too. In recent years, some of our public bodies, particularly in the NHS, haven’t had stable leadership teams and have struggled to fill key vacancies. The pressures facing leaders of public bodies have always been significant – but we’ve never needed good, stable collaborative leadership more than we do now. 

We’ll explore and monitor all those issues and more through a range of work in the coming year. 

A key strand, of course, is following the pandemic pound – understanding how public money has and will be spent to support recovery from Covid-19. And a programme of work is underway. I’m considering looking at how the Scottish Government is investing in skills for the longer term. There will be separate pieces of audit work on the government’s economic recovery and infrastructure investment plans, and our work looking at good governance in the public sector will continue. 

This is also a huge year for addressing climate change, with Glasgow hosting the UN Climate Change Conference in November and a new U.S. president putting it at the top of his agenda. We’ll be looking at how Scotland sits in terms of meeting its own climate change ambitions. How government delivers on other policy areas, like early learning and childcare hours, will also remain a focus.  

Ultimately, my work and that of Audit Scotland is about helping to improve how our public bodies manage and spend money. It’s about achieving better public services for all, regardless of background or means. And that’s what we’ll keep striving for this year and next. 

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