David Walker, co editor of Breaking Out, is contributing editor at the Guardian
Public audit is breaking out. Its core task remains independent assurance that precious public money is spent lawfully and effectively. But the ‘in and out’ or ‘injection’ model for audit is no longer enough. Auditors are assuming a wider responsibility, bringing them closer to executive management.
In the different countries of the UK, as with Australia, Canada and emergent Kenya and Jamaica, auditors no longer report and run. Securing value for public spending increasingly demands their sustained presence. They are having to intervene earlier in financial decisions then stay to follow up, checking recommendations have been adopted.
This expanded role results from the crash and – in many countries – enforced austerity in public finance. Parliamentarians demand more assurance that the funds they vote for are buying the services intended. Media and civil society, mistrustful of politicians, turn to auditors as a check-and-fail safe. Permanent secretaries and agency heads enlist auditors to expand executive capacity.
The picture painted by contributors to Breaking Out, ACCA’s new collection of essays from leading public auditors, isn’t uniform. Political circumstances and the autonomy of audit institutions vary. Within the UK, devolution, and in Scotland’s debate about independence, has opened unprecedented vistas for auditor generals to survey wider landscapes, looking at financial viability decades ahead and – sometimes quizzically – at lines of demarcation between local and central government and between adjacent agencies and departments.
John Doyle, the auditor general of the Australian state of Victoria, says auditors must go beyond the traditional sweeper-up role and take a more muscular role, assuming joint responsibility with managers and parliamentarians for improving public sector performance. The view from Canada sees audit as a ‘real time’ contributor to effective spending decisions by civil servants – it should be an extra administrative resource.
Intervene earlier in the processes by which money is allocated to departments, says Amyas Morse, the Westminster parliament’s comptroller and auditor general, and problems can be nipped in the bud. Providing assurance earlier in the life cycle of a project can limit the impact of administrative failures, preventing them from snowballing.
So audit should be peering ‘upstream’ at how decisions are made within government departments and agencies. It must also look ‘downstream’ to how services are delivered. Downstream lie contractors and the increasing proportion of public services that are outsourced to private firms. Auditors are supposed to ‘follow the money’ – Professor Ron Hodges of Birmingham University and ACCA’s head of public sector, Gillian Fawcett, argue: the trail leads to auditors examining the performance of firms such as Serco and G4S. Private sector auditors are responsible for their accounts, but the work they do for the public sector – and what they are paid for it – are matters for public auditors.
But not all auditors welcome the new expansiveness. Marcine Waterman, controller of audit at the Audit Commission – the English government agency that is now being wound up – says auditors are not improvement advisers. They can hold a mirror up to a public body that is not performing, but must intervene sparingly and modestly.
What happens, asks John Muwanga, drawing on his experience as Uganda’s auditor general, when public demand for better services lands on the auditors’ desks. He is worried by the ‘expectation gap’ between what auditors can do and what the public thinks they must do.
And yet public auditors are not going to escape fiscal fate. As long as money is tight – and austerity looks set to last, compounded in the UK and across the European Union by the health and social care pressures of ageing – public and parliaments will demand more value for money. Short of an administrative revolution in which general managers themselves suddenly acquire new financial competence, the services of public auditors are going to be in high and growing demand.