Dont blame the messenger, by Garbrielle Cohen

1 Dec 05
Sir Michael Bichard's criticisms of the National Audit Office, published in PF last week, are untrue and unfair. The watchdog's work has actually resulted in lasting improvements and even saved lives

02 December 2005

Sir Michael Bichard's criticisms of the National Audit Office, published in PF last week, are untrue and unfair. The watchdog's work has actually resulted in lasting improvements –and even saved lives

Departmental Capability Reviews should not be the failure that Sir Michael Bichard forecasts ('Bichard slates DCRs' lack of external scrutiny', November 25–December 1).

Indeed Bichard's views, as quoted, represent an outdated conception of what public audit means in British central government. Contrary to the impression that he creates, the National Audit Office does a substantial amount of work across the board on central government and draws attention to ways in which departments, agencies and other authorities can raise their capability and improve their services.

Our work has several facets that are individually important and, when aggregated, provide the NAO with a powerful insight into what works in government. Given the scale of government activity, our financial audit of major departments is virtually a permanent process.

This provides us with real insight into the tricky issues they face and an opportunity to provide advice and support — as well as holding them to account by qualifying our audit opinion and reporting to Parliament as appropriate.

Running alongside this we have our value-for-money work, where we examine programmes and projects across the whole range of government activity. The capability of individual departments to deliver policies efficiently and cost-effectively is constantly assessed. We return to key subjects of continuing and widespread concern.

A notable example is our progress report on hospital-acquired infection, which examined what the government had been doing to combat this menace since our previous report, five years ago.

Our reports to Parliament are independent and robust and lead to real and lasting improvements in departmental performance. The overall savings across the board from the NAO's work are substantial by any standard. Savings that have been quantified and confirmed amount to £515m in 2005 and up to £1.4bn over the past three years.

But savings are only one measure of performance. We also look for prompt qualitative improvements. For example, only recently the Department of Health confirmed that our recommendations on services to people suffering strokes could save up to ten lives a week.

In addition to our individual value-for-money studies, we have a wider cross-cutting remit and issue reports on 'across-the-board subjects', such as major IT projects, managing risks and the better use of resources.

We are also examining how the government's efficiency programme operates at every level and how departments intend to achieve their targets. To this end, we have looked at 20 projects across six departments. We are working with the Audit Commission on the efficiency of the delivery chains in key areas such as bus services, housing and combating childhood obesity.

We validate and report on the data systems underlying Public Service Agreement targets. This is not a cosmetic exercise but fundamental to the credibility of the whole performance regime. And we have reported on joint targets between departments and how the shared working needed to achieve them can help to meet government objectives.

Given our unique cross-departmental perspective, we were delighted to be invited by Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell to contribute to the Departmental Capability Reviews, which will be published. Our recent work has highlighted a number of common issues around capability, for example on the design and implementation of policy, effective programme management, commercial astuteness and partnership working.

We have reported on such topics and individual departments have been held to account. But we are always keen to draw out the wider lessons and identify and promote good practice.

This is external audit at its best and is in stark contrast to Bichard's description. Far from being a response to a failure of audit, capability reviews will draw extensively on information generated by the audit process.

The debate therefore should not be about the audit process. The issue is how the insights generated can best prompt concrete improvements in public services.

Gabrielle Cohen is an assistant auditor general at the National Audit Office