Covid-19 and Scotland’s public finances

by Fiona Diggle, Audit Manager

Covid-19 has seen around £5.3 billion announced by the Scottish Government to tackle the impact of the pandemic.  

Most of that spending has come from Barnett consequentials – extra funding that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland get if the UK government decides to spend more in England on things that are devolved, such as health. 

So far, the Scottish Government has broadly spent that money in the same way as its UK counterparts. And it’s made a good start on ensuring there’s transparency around how it’s been spent. 

Continue reading Covid-19 and Scotland’s public finances

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.

What Covid-19 means for fraud in the public sector

By Anne Cairns, Audit Manager 

Covid-19 has changed all our lives. And for many public sector staff, it’s meant working under extreme pressure, bringing greater risks of fraud. 

We’ve now outlined some of those risks – and how to reduce them – in a new publication for public sector bodies. 

They include things like normal internal controls being relaxed to allow bodies to buy goods or services which are needed urgently, possibly from new suppliers. 

Continue reading What Covid-19 means for fraud in the public sector

What are the Auditor General for Scotland’s powers?

By Stephen Boyle

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The powers of the Auditor General are considerable and are intended to support the democratic scrutiny of how well public money has been spent.  For me, they also exist so that the work of public audit helps improve the lives of the people of Scotland and contributes to building a more caring and fair country. That’s what drove me to apply for the job and what I will be focused on over the next eight years. 

It was Her Majesty The Queen who formally appointed me – a mark of the government act that guarantees that neither the Scottish Government or Parliament can direct or control my work. I am privileged to be independent of both.  

Continue reading What are the Auditor General for Scotland’s powers?

Being an Audit Director at Audit Scotland

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We currently have an exciting Audit Director vacancy. In this blog, Gordon Smail, an Audit Director at Audit Scotland, provides some insights into the role.

By Gordon Smail

The Audit Director role really gives me the chance to make a difference. This is both through the audit work that provides assurance to the people of Scotland about how public money is used, and in helping Audit Scotland and our staff develop at a time of significant change for public finances and public audit.

As in the private sector, Audit Directors who are engagement leads oversee financial audits which meet international auditing standards. And because public money is involved, we also report on wider aspects such as financial sustainability, governance and value for money.

This requires technical knowledge and experience, but also an understanding of the issues across the public sector and strong working relationships with leaders and other senior stakeholders. Our aim is to provide independent assurance which supports democratic scrutiny of how public money is raised and spent and the outcomes achieved. For me, my Audit Director colleagues and our teams this work is both challenging and rewarding.

As an Audit Director, I lead and manage audit teams, have a close involvement at key stages of the audits and in the judgements and conclusions we report. Audit Directors are also involved at senior levels in managing Audit Scotland and its business.

An important part of the role is our contribution to the wider work of Audit Scotland in supporting public accountability and improvement. This provides us with unique, privileged access and insight into the public sector and its finances which in turn supports our ability to add value through our audits.

As with all organisations, we have been working hard to manage the impact of Covid-19 on our staff and our work. We are taking a pragmatic, flexible and consistent approach to audit under these conditions.

Audit Directors at Audit Scotland are working well together, building on our strong foundations to maintain the quality and integrity of public audit over this difficult period. I am confident based on our digital and technical support, our networks and approach, and the quality and professionalism of our staff that we are very well-placed to deal with the challenges ahead.

The work here is challenging and the Audit Director role has its pressures and ‘moments’, as you would expect in a senior role. But our culture is supportive and collegiate, with well-being at the centre of our organisational ethos. I work with fantastic colleagues who have a range of backgrounds and expertise, who are there to help, as we support improvement in the public services we all use daily.

If you would like to find out more information about the Audit Director vacancy, please click here. Applications close Monday 11 May, midnight.

Are we spending public money on the right things?

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By Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland

It’s never easy holding the purse strings – from the family budget to the Scottish budget, there’s always a cast of competing voices making a persuasive case for a bigger slice of the pie.  Winning the argument can come down to making the case for what the money will achieve, and why some things really are more important.

The budget for 2020/21 was passed last week with the support of the Scottish Greens. But it remains hard to see exactly how the government expects to make a difference to its priorities – as set out in the National Performance Framework – through its latest spending proposals.

Continue reading Are we spending public money on the right things?

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

How stable are Scotland’s finances?

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By Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland

It’s in our nature as humans to pay attention to immediate threats to our way of life. It’s much harder to plan for scenarios that we imagine as distant. A complex threat like climate change is the classic example. We’ve heard about the risks for decades but it’s taken an extraordinary teenage girl from Sweden to galvanise public protest, and put pressure on politicians to do more in the here and now.

Continue reading How stable are Scotland’s finances?

What are the procurement fraud red flags to look out for?

By Angela Canning, Audit Director

Auditors are naturally sceptical people. We are mindful that having systems and processes in place to safeguard public money and deter fraud doesn’t always mean that procedures can’t break down, aren’t kept up-to-date or that people won’t try to find ways to cheat the system for their personal benefit.

Continue reading What are the procurement fraud red flags to look out for?