Dry as it may appear, a concern about the future of audit and inspection is not misplaced right now. I will not be mourning the passing of Comprehensive Area Assessment, because it lacked focus and didn’t help with strategic grip. Nor do I think that the Audit overhead should be heavier than absolutely necessary. In fact I thought that the cessation of CPA was a mistake because it had only just begun to provide meaningful longitudinal data.
However there is a gap to be filled, and I am glad that there is thinking going on in the local government community and especially within the LGA and the IDeA. For whilst some of the Audit Commission reports of the past could have been better developed, there were some interesting and influential pieces of work which helped the sector to develop.
I would guess that the Audit Commission is still in shock, if not surprise, at the freezing of its Chief Executive post, and I do have concerns that it could be somewhat rudderless at a point when good leadership is critical. It will therefore be important for the public sector as a whole to consider how best to create a cohesive approach to the question of audit and inspection which economical and proportionate as well as having sufficiently robust networks to produce interesting work. Going forward it seems that the IDeA and the RIEPs seem to provide a more useful framework for improvement than was provided by the Audit Commission.
In the meantime discussions continue in Hertfordshire about the potential framework for internal audit, which is moving towards being a county-wide shared service. It strikes me that there is a real need to join up these two discussions and to consider how the audit and improvement needs of the sector might best be met. That is because I think that there is a need to reshape the authorising environment for the local government part of the public sector.
In the absence of top down control and a reduction in performance indicators, and assuming that people are not waiting for guidance, there is a genuine need to be clear about how decisions and programmes are evaluated. Quite rightly the decision making framework should now be much more in the hands of local politicians, setting out the right approach for their area, as mentioned in a previous post. However as it is increasingly developing outside a top-down policy framework, this freedom of decision making needs constructive, critical evaluation. There are clear roles here for the checks and balances of scrutiny and audit, which could help to inform decision making by engaging the community, politicians and partner organisations.
The authorising framework needs careful management if it is not to become another bureaucratic industry. Best practice scrutiny and audit should be able to flex to accommodate the new world. However the key question going forward will be the extent to which decision makers will value the legitimacy of such evaluation.