PracticePeople In PracticeNAO has more bark than bite

NAO has more bark than bite

The National Audit Office has published its 2001 report. It isn't, one has to say, a very impressive document, considering that it?s supposed to cover some £300bn plus of public spending.

We are not given much by way of accounts and, curiously for an organisation designed to look at other people’s accounts, no balance sheet. There’s a cash basis for income and outgoings while some amounts, like the salary of NAO chief Sir John Bourn, are left out.

Allowing for all, this the NAO costs us something like £55m last year. But what do we get for this? On the whole the report has a slightly piano, apologetic note. Up front we’re told: ‘Our work assessed the way government policies are implemented but cannot question the policies themselves.’

However, some big policies are not examined ? for instance reduction of poverty, or creation of a better educated population for the future, Kyoto and the environment.

Jumping on the foot-and-mouth disease wagon may be useful in terms of pursuit of public money spent, but how will it sit alongside other inquiries in contributing to a serious discussion about the future of agriculture in this country?

The NAO is, alas, limited and backward looking; it deals in postmortems rather than keeping the patient healthy.

A number of other points might have been discussed.

The question of relationships with the other investigatory bodies such as the HSE and OFSTED and whether we are indeed over-audited.

There is the relationship with the other audit bodies such as the Audit Commission (which recently published their own very much better strategy discussion document) and Scotland’s Accounts Commission.

There is a similar discussion to be had about the relationship with the private sector, especially against the background of the government’s stated policy of using private sector skills in the delivery of public services.

It’s all a bit of a pity. The National Audit Office, backed up by the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons, should be a potentially very powerful organisation.

But a combination of timidness on the part of the NAO and dumbing down of parliamentary select committees has led to the system in practice being very much more bark than bite.

What a pity the Sharman report didn?t take a harder look at these things.

  • Sir Peter Kemp is a member of the ICAEW and a former senior civil servant.

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