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.

Exploring the scale of the challenge facing Scotland’s councils

In our 2015 overview report on local government in Scotland, we said: ‘Councils tell us that they should manage budgetary pressures in 2015/16 but the years beyond pose a level of challenge not previously experienced.’

The Commission recognises the achievement of councils – both councillors and officers – in meeting these challenges to date.

What we say in this year’s overview is that the scale of the challenge in 2016/17 and beyond has significantly increased because of the local government funding settlement. This has substantial implications for services to the public, councillors and the local government workforce.

Next year councils and health boards, through health and social care partnerships, jointly have the responsibility to make a significant start in the shift from hospital care to care at home and care in the community. This is the most far-reaching public service reform since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

nr_160317_local_government_overview_cover And these challenges are compounded by: a one-year financial settlement, cost pressures and increasing demands on services from an ageing and growing population. The majority of our recent Best Value audits have highlighted a dependency on incremental changes to services, increasing charges and reducing employee numbers in order to make savings. But these are neither sufficient nor sustainable solutions set against the scale of the challenge facing councils. Cuts can only be part of the solution. What’s required is a more strategic approach, longer-term planning and a greater openness to alternative forms of service delivery.

It’s challenging for councillors and officers to fundamentally change the way a council has provided a service over a lengthy period of time. But there are significant consequences to not conducting comprehensive option appraisals: services may not be as efficient or effective as they could be and may not be achieving value for money, and resources may not be directed to priority areas such as preventative services. In considering all viable options, it’ll be essential that councillors are provided with comprehensive and objective information on the cost, benefits and risks of each option. Comparisons with other councils can be illuminating – for example in managing sickness absence. If all councils matched the best performers, there would be an equivalent gain of 200 teachers and 700 other council staff across the country.

Councils will need to ensure they have people with the necessary knowledge and skills to manage the changes that lie ahead, particularly in options appraisal, programme management, commissioning, finance and scrutiny.

And in a climate of reducing resources the importance of scrutiny has never been greater. Scrutiny arrangements must add demonstrable value in monitoring the planning, execution and follow-up of key decisions. The public needs to have confidence that their council’s arrangements are transparent, independent and effective. If they are not, the public interest is not being met.

The Commission hopes this report will be a helpful tool for councillors and officers, and as always, we welcome feedback

About the author

AuditScotland_P_001Douglas Sinclair is chair of the Accounts Commission for a term of office until 30 November 2017. He has held the position of Chief Executive in district, regional and unitary councils in Scotland, as well as being former Chief Executive of COSLA.