Reflections of a career with the Accounts Commission

By Dr Graham Sharp

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After 11 years as a member of the Accounts Commission, the last three as Chair, I will be stepping down at the end of July.

Reflecting on this time I am struck by how much has shifted and changed in how we report, the impact of our reporting and the increasingly complex demands faced by local government.

Since 2009, there has been significant change in the ways in which the Commission has increased its accessibility through meeting in public and using innovative ways to reach stakeholders. We are all affected by the decisions councils make and the services they provide.

For me a major shift has been the change in the nature of our audit work. Our reports, in particular our Overview reports, have developed to help decision makers plan for the future. This work has run in parallel with our audited bodies developing medium term and, increasingly, longer term financial planning which supports and integrates with corporate and workforce plans to drive essential change.

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Our reports have highlighted an ever-increasing demand for services and a long-term reduction in funding alongside a complex policy landscape with more ring-fenced funding.

Over the last decade it is clear how locked and linked together many local services are, at their best working alongside each other and with partners and local communities to improve our quality of life. One of the biggest shifts has been the move towards health and social care integration. But as the Commission has reported, together with the Auditor General for Scotland, the transformation of these services has so far neither attained the pace and scale required nor made the anticipated financial savings. This will continue to challenge councils and their partners.

However, Covid-19 is the greatest challenge public services has seen in decades. The impact is only just beginning to be apparent, but it will shape, challenge and change councils and all public services across Scotland. As the country seeks to recover from the pandemic, the Commission’s role will be more important than ever.

The overriding issue will be the damage to our economy from Covid-19, possibly compounded by consequences of Brexit. The fundamental need will be to rebuild a sustainable economic base, providing both meaningful employment for citizens and the funding required for the level of public services we all wish to see.

These challenges bring together many of the key messages in the Commission’s reports, messages that are now even more relevant than before, including the management of financial resources and thoughtful redesign of services from a long-term perspective. It also means engaging and working with communities to share outcomes and priorities.  Perhaps most important of all in driving significant change successfully will be clear coherent leadership from officers and politicians working together.

Key messages in many Commission performance reports, with the Auditor General for Scotland, on infrastructure and major projects (such as City Region and Growth Deals, and Affordable Housing) will be particularly relevant as an unprecedented effort is made to rebuild and reshape our economy. Aligning objectives throughout the layers of national, regional and local priorities, along with having an agreed vision of what success looks like and how it will be measured from the beginning, is critical to the success of large projects.

There have been many proud moments during my time on the Accounts Commission. Underpinning our efforts has always been the aim of helping councils improve services for local people. I am privileged to have been a part of this vital work.

I thank my colleagues, both on the Commission and at Audit Scotland, who have shown such professionalism and commitment for their support as well as the many partner organisations we work with. I wish you all the best for the future.

Auditing school education in Scotland – an update

By Antony Clark, Audit Director

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An important part of my role since March has been co-ordinating Audit Scotland’s response to Covid-19 on behalf of the Auditor General and Accounts Commission, while reviewing our work programme to ensure it reflects the pandemic’s implications for public services.

This includes work on school education in Scotland that was due to be published this summer. Given the immediate demands the pandemic placed on the Scottish Government and councils, it was one of several audits that were paused in March.

During this very challenging time, teachers, schools, councils, Education Scotland, the Scottish Government and others have been supporting young people and preparing to get pupils back to school safely.

We know closing schools during the pandemic has both short and potentially long-term consequences for Scotland’s young people, affecting learning outcomes, health and wellbeing, and the poverty-related attainment gap.

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In recognition of Covid-19’s impact on schooling, Audit Scotland will be carrying out more audit work over the autumn and winter with a view to the Auditor General and Accounts Commission publishing a report in early 2021. Timescales will be kept under review given the risk of a second wave of Covid-19 cases and the implications it could have for school education.

Much of the work we’ve already done on the effectiveness of Scotland’s education system is still relevant and will be used to inform the report in 2021.

For example, the Scottish Government wants to raise attainment and close the poverty-related attainment gap. Prior to the pandemic, it was clear that the attainment gap between pupils in the most deprived and least deprived areas remained wide – although it has narrowed slightly at the national level. Some councils have had more success than others in closing the gap, but there is a risk that it could increase due to the impact of Covid-19.

The scope of the new audit work is still to be determined and key stakeholders will help inform it. The work will likely consider educational outcomes, how the system has responded to Covid-19, longer-term implications for young people and the poverty-related attainment gap.

It is also likely to look at how effectively the Scottish Government, councils and their partners have worked together to address pupils’ immediate needs and remedy the damage to pupils’ learning and wellbeing.

We want to help inform school education post-Covid-19, so the report will outline the Auditor General and the Accounts Commission’s views on the key opportunities and challenges facing education in Scotland, as well as our longer-term plans for audit work in this area.

Our approach will be sensitive to the difficult circumstances faced by the education sector since the start of the pandemic, that are likely to continue for some time.

We’ll also be keeping you updated on this blog about other Covid-19 audit work as we continue to plan in this fast-moving environment. You can sign up for blog update alerts below.

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