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.

Public audit in Scotland: What’s on the horizon?

We are living in incredibly busy times for the public sector in Scotland, with each passing week bringing a new political announcement or debate. With so much going on, it can be hard to think beyond the next few months.

I’ve often heard it said that audit is retrospective in nature, but in fact we spend a lot of time and energy looking ahead to understand what’s on the horizon, what it means for our future work, and what impact we want to have. And we need to make sure that our plans reflect the priorities and concerns of the public and our key stakeholders, whichever policy area we’re focused on.

Our new approach uses these principles to create a rolling five-year programme of audits, which we refresh each year. The results of our latest review are now available on our website, setting out in detail what areas of public spending and policy we plan to report on between now and 2021/22.

The programme covers all of the work that Audit Scotland will carry out over the next five years on behalf of me and my colleagues in the Accounts Commission, the local government watchdog. It’s based on consultation with a range of stakeholders; for example, as Auditor General I report to the Parliament’s Public Audit & Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee and we consulted with committee members to see how the audit risks we’d identified through our work matched what they want to see from public audit in the coming years.

As well as the audits of specific policy developments across the public sector, I’d like to highlight a couple of areas that will inevitably affect much of the public sector, and all of us who use public services in Scotland, in the long-term.

First off are the historic changes taking place in Scotland’s public finances, with new financial powers coming on stream through the Scotland Acts 2012 and 2016. We reported our latest update to MSPs last month and will continue to report on this annually. This commitment reflects the scale of the work that will be required of the Scottish Government and others to successfully implement and manage the new powers.

We’ll also continue to expand our high-profile work on Scotland’s NHS, with audits of the NHS workforce, children’s mental health services, and health and social care integration all in the pipeline.

And there’s lot more, right across the public sector, from ferry services and widening access, higher education to fire reform, digital to community justice. We’ll also continue to explore different ways of making our work accessible to everyone with an interest, building on the range of ways we already report our work.

If you’d like to know more, you can find out who to contact here.

About the author

MM6A8690croppedCaroline Gardner is the Auditor General, and Accountable Officer for Audit Scotland. She started her term in July 2012, and has more than 30 years’ experience in audit, governance and financial management. Follow her on twitter @AuditorGenScot

 

Auditing historic change in Scotland’s public finances

On 1st April, the Scottish Parliament gained control of income tax rates and bands, higher borrowing limits, and the management of the Crown Estate in Scotland – and there are more new powers to come.

The Scotland Act 2016 is fundamentally changing management of the public finances and, once fully implemented, half of what is spent in Scotland will be raised here and the budget will be subject to greater uncertainty and volatility than ever before. With more control over public finances and new opportunities and risks, it’s clear that we’re entering new territory.

The scale of change needed to implement and manage the new financial powers is significant and it’s important that the Parliament and the public can see what progress is being made. As the public spending watchdog, Audit Scotland has carried out extensive work in this area.

On Thursday, I’ll join the Auditor General, Caroline Gardner, and colleagues to present the findings of our latest report on managing new financial powers to Holyrood’s Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee. We looked at how the Scottish Government, Revenue Scotland and the Scottish Fiscal Commission are introducing and managing the range of powers devolved through the 2012 and 2016 Scotland Acts.

We found that the Scottish Government is well-organised to deliver new tax and spending powers. It has updated its structures for overseeing the new powers and has good programme management processes in place. Revenue Scotland is also making good progress in preparing for further devolved taxes, and the transition of the Scottish Fiscal Commission to a statutory body is being managed effectively.

The new powers will substantially change the type and volume of work the Scottish Government will do. We found that the Scottish Government is identifying the staff and skills it needs, but recruiting enough people with the required skills may prove difficult. We recommend that the Scottish Government build a clearer picture of potential future costs, to help plan how it will fund implementation of the new powers within its budget.

In this changing environment, a more strategic approach to public financial management and reporting is needed. This includes a medium-term financial strategy based on clear policies and principles. The Scottish Government is taking steps to provide a more comprehensive picture of the public finances, as it’s important that the Parliament and public have the information they need to understand and scrutinise the government’s financial decisions.

MSPs will have the chance to discuss these findings in detail with us this week, and the session can be watched live on Parliament TV.

We’ll continue to report on the progress of public bodies in implementing and managing the new financial powers. If you’re interested in our work in this area, our new e-hub on financial devolution has a range of reports, exhibits, briefings and other useful tools.

About the author

MarkTaylorMark Taylor is an Assistant Director in Audit Scotland. He is responsible for overseeing Audit Scotland’s work relating to financial devolution and constitutional change.