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.