This is a deeply uninteresting subject to the general public, of course, but the private auditing sector and the various institutes ought to take considerable notice of it, for there is a big opportunity here for both the public and private sectors.
The time is certainly ripe for a review. An enormous amount has happened in the last 20 years since public auditing arrangements were established in their present form, not least the effective blurring of the public and private sectors in the delivering of public services. There are three important questions to look at.
First, what is public audit and where should it go? Is it just old-fashioned tick-and-check and chasing the money, or does it go right out into value for money questions, inspections, audit of the setting and delivery of performance targets, ethics, and so on?
Second, there are far too many checkers as against doers in the public sector. The checkers need to be cut back and the audit explosion bubble pricked.And third, and crucially important, who is going to do the work?
Traditionally the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission via District Audit, helped here and there by the private sector, have handled it. The Smith study should not just look at how these bodies might be merged or made to work together better, but how the private sector can contribute more.
The report of the ICAEW’s 2005 Group (remember it?) of which I was a member, pointed to the opportunities in the public sector and the delivery of public services for private sector skills and people and firms. The 2005 Group’s report bit the dust, but this point remains valid.
There is a chance now to end the dialogue of the deaf that exists. The Treasury and whoever are running this study, and the private sector profession, must get alongside each other and stay alongside each other. Joint thinking is needed to come to sensible new arrangements, and those new arrangements must provide for the possibility of substantially greater involvement of the private sector in delivering public sector audit. Standing apart is no longer an option.
Sir Peter Kemp is chief executive of the Foundation for Accountancy and Financial Management.
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