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. 

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Transparency needed to follow pandemic pound

By Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland

BEFORE coronavirus changed life as we know it, the Scottish Government was facing some very real financial challenges.  

They knew the NHS would continue to absorb more of the Scottish budget (41 per cent in 2019/20) without big changes to service delivery and faster integration of health and social care. Those problems largely remain

Other knot-filled folders sat on ministers’ desks. They included ones marked police and local government funding; Brexit; and managing the volatility of new tax and social security powers. Most of those challenges remain

These issues would have tested any government at any time. Now a pandemic – and the increased costs and uncertainties it has brought – must be managed alongside them.  

Most of the Covid-19 spending in Scotland has been covered by huge levels of UK government borrowing to fund the health, social care and business response. That’s meant an extra £9.7 billion added on to a Scottish budget of over £40 billion for 2020/21.  

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How Scotland tackles inequality is my top priority

By Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland

Covid-19 has disproportionately affected Scotland’s most vulnerable citizens, and there is a risk that it will widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. 

How the Scottish Government and public bodies respond to that challenge will be a big focus of our audit work in the months and years ahead. 

Poverty is on the rise and mass unemployment is being predicted on a scale not seen since the early 1990s. All at a time when you are already twice as likely to die with Covid-19 if you live in one of this country’s most deprived areas.  

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Covid-19: responding, adapting and building for the future, Scotland’s Strategic Scrutiny bodies

Elma Murray, Interim Chair, Strategic Scrutiny Group and Interim Chair, Accounts Commission

Read the Strategic Scrutiny Group response to Covid-19

Covid-19 has changed our society and economy in profound ways. The immediate and longer-term impacts of Covid-19 are ever-present, shifting the ways in which we live and dominating the delivery of public services.

The pace of change has been rapid and, in many ways, this is welcome.  However that speed also presents risks to public services and the potential for increased exclusion.

Central to providing citizens with ongoing reassurance about how public services are being provided, alongside the approach to rebuilding and renewing those services, will be regulation, inspection and audit by Scotland’s scrutiny bodies.

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Covid-19 must mean lasting change for our NHS

By Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a huge change in our health and care services in a very short time. 

The terrible human cost of that first wave is felt strongly by all of us, particularly those of us who lost loved ones. And we know that the impact of the pandemic hasn’t been equally shared and that it’s the most vulnerable people who have suffered the most.  

We’ve been monitoring Covid-19’s impact as part of my annual NHS overview work. 

The two main things we’re focussed on is how the NHS in Scotland responded to coronavirus and what lessons can be learned, and secondly the financial and operational implications of the pandemic.  

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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. 

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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. 

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