By Gillian Fawcett, head of public sector, ACCA
Friday the 13th certainly lived up to its billing for the Audit Commission as the government chose the notorious date as the day to announce the end of 157 years of public audit as we know it. The chief executive's predictably not very pleased, as you can see from this memo, reproduced in the FT.
A move from having one centralised body to 'citizen power' instead is perfectly in-keeping with the 'big society' ideas of the government and the Audit Commission was perhaps in need of review, but scrapping the Commission outright could cost more than the £50m of potential savings identified.
When it comes to auditing its work, the public sector needs a coherent approach; authorities need to be clear on the processes and expectations involved in it. Much of the Audit Commission's work is already contracted out to large private sector audit firms, but the team that works out of the Commission itself ensure there is a consistency of approach. This won't be easy to achieve in future.
This source of centralised expertise was first available as the District Audit service which was consolidated into the Audit Commission in 2003. The Audit Commission and its district audit predecessors have been demonstrating best practice benchmarking and guidance for public sector officers for a combined total of 157 years and the accumulated wealth of knowledge and skills could be lost if the transition period to 2012 isn't handled properly.
The idea of an army of 'armchair auditors' may sound a great way of increasing citizen involvement in local government, but in reality very few members of the public actually look at their local authorities' accounts, even though they're already publically available.
When people do look, they will usually only do so to check out an area of personal interest – spending on children's play areas; recycling; park spending – rather than the accounts as a whole. Investigations into specific areas may be costly and might not be of the wider financial benefit for the public.
Going forward, there needs to be some form of co-ordinating structure put in place to avoid a public audit 'postcode lottery'.