True he comes up with suggestions of value in themselves, such as improved independent internal audit; improved support of some kind of unstated nature for the public accounts committee and perhaps other select committees; and giving the NAO wider access to the books of recipients of public money where he hasn’t got this already.
There’s also importantly, the idea that the Treasury’s wings should be curbed to the extent of making sure the results delivered under public service agreements are independently validated.
These are useful suggestions, but scarcely radical.
There’s no suggestion of bringing in more external private sector people to examine and input directly on government departments – true there is some suggestion the NAO should use more private sector people, which is welcome if pretty modest, but only under the eagle eye of the NAO and its apparatus; scarcely independence.
There’s no testing of the effectiveness or efficiency of the NAO – subjecting it to a review by the Joint Monitoring Unit of the institutes may guarantee propriety, which we can take for granted, but it doesn’t guarantee efficiency, which we can’t.
There’s no convincing discussion about the conflict between audit work and consultancy work in relation to the Audit Commission. Indeed there’s no discussion of why the public audit bodies shouldn’t come together into one ‘general accounting office’. And there’s no discussion of whether the NAO should take a look at policy issues, eg, leaving the ERM or a resumption of bombing Iraq.
There’s no discussion how a new head of the NAO might be appointed. Nor whether there might be improved follow-up to audit reports, and disciplining of negligent civil servants.
There’s not sufficient questioning of whether there is too much audit; too much inhibition of the entrepreneurial spirit and recognition of the real clash between looking after public money and doing one’s best by the citizen.
One can’t believe that Colin Sharman, an intelligent character, wasn’t aware of some of these issues. Perhaps the poor chap was got at and the result is this wasted opportunity.
- Sir Peter Kemp is a member of the ICAEW and a former senior civil servant.
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