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 sector cyber security: The importance of leadership

contentBy Gemma Diamond and Mark Roberts

It was great to see the Scottish Government’s cyber resilience framework published in January which aims make it much clearer and easier for public bodies to assess their risks and comply with relevant requirements.    Continue reading Public sector cyber security: The importance of leadership

The Accounts Commission prepares for a new phase of leadership

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The campaign to recruit a new Chair of the Accounts Commission is underway, marking the first milestone in an important phase for the Commission. The advert for the post has been published on the Scottish Government’s public appointments website.

It’s an increasingly high profile position and one that has a significant and central role in improving the delivery of our most critical day to day public services across Scotland.

The Chair will lead a body that has played a pivotal role in Scottish public life for over 40 years. The work of the Accounts Commission has evolved over the decades, increasing its profile, but its core purpose remains the same – holding local councils to account for their performance, and in doing so acting impartially and independently of councils and government.

The Commission has an intensive work programme. It reports to the public and engages with audited bodies and other stakeholders on matters arising from the audit of 32 Scottish councils, 33 associated council bodies and 30 joint health and social care integration boards. Read more in the Commission’s latest strategy and action plan.

This means the Chair is required to make a commitment of, in effect, at least half a working week, every week.

The role brings with it a number of a challenges and opportunities. Like all members of the Commission, the Chair should have a passion and vision for helping ensure Scotland’s public services are the best they can be. They need to be able to bring together 12 people, from very different backgrounds, with a range of experience and professional knowledge, and encourage them to make findings and judgements about public bodies.

Increasingly, the work of the Commission receives both local and national media coverage. Its reports are integral to debates and discussions in the Scottish Parliament and are expected to help inform debate in local communities.

The Chair is the most high profile member of the Commission – representing the watchdog in the Parliament, in the media and engaging directly with councillors and the public. The Commission believes that effectiveness lies in the impact of the messages articulated from its audit work to councils, government and particularly citizens. And it is for the Chair to ensure shape and context to these messages.

The environment in which the Accounts Commission works continues to change: we have a new political and leadership landscape in local government following May’s council elections. The Scottish Government’s agenda for change also continues, such as the recent announcements around further reform of education; an area that we will be dedicating work to in coming months. And the recent tragedy at Grenfell Tower in London has considerable implications for local government across the UK, in terms of planning and building regulation and safety and housing availability.

There has already been a recent period of substantial change for the Commission, with the first of the reports from the recently published new approach to auditing Best Value; publication of high-profile performance audits in a range of policy areas, and an updated strategy underlining its expectations for improvement in councils.

The Chair works closely with the Auditor General, Caroline Gardner, in taking forward public audit in Scotland, including providing direction for Audit Scotland. The Controller of Audit reports to the Commission on the accounts of local authorities and matters arising from these audits. Find out more about this on the Commission’s website.

The appointment of Chair is initially for four years, with the option of reappointment by the Minister for Local Government and Housing, Kevin Stewart MSP, for another four years.

A new Chair will be in place from 1 November, appointed by the Minister. Currently, the post is being fulfilled on an acting basis by Ronnie Hinds. The Commission recently chose Christine May to act as his Deputy in this interim period.

The Chair of the Commission is a high-profile influential role. The appointment of a new chair marks the beginning of a new and exciting era for the Commission, as we respond to ever more challenging times.

About the author

MM6A5388Paul Reilly is Secretary to the Accounts Commission

 

 

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.