I have got to say that I was as surprised as anyone at the announcement of the closing down of the Audit Commission at the weekend. Don’t get me wrong, the Government in general and Communities Minister Eric Pickles in particular had made no secret of their dislike for the organisation and I did expect its role to be slimmed down considerably in coming months.
APSE as an organisation has had a well defined and consistent policy on audit and inspection over the past decade or so. We recognise the need for openness and transparency in the delivery of public services and therefore believe that you need an independent audit body to regulate the sector, which has the power to intervene when things go wrong. However, by definition a world class audit and inspection service should work itself out of a job – or at least to an optimum minimum level. Perhaps this is the cycle that the Commission has gone through.
Set up by a Conservative Government in the 1980’s, the organisations role expanded significantly under the Labour Government post 1997, as the inspector of Best Value, CPA and CAA. Local authority performance improved dramatically against the measures created by these frameworks. It could therefore be argued that its role had been fulfilled and that maybe a more minimalist role was appropriate for the future. But I have worries over its complete eradication.
It should be interesting to see what replaces the Commission as it is clear that the need for some of its functions remains. Whilst the role of independent financial audit is vital, this will probably be picked up by the large accountancy practices and they will need to keep their consultancy interests clearly separated from this role. The need to assess local performance levels and compare with others for the purposes of improvement and performance management will also remain necessary. The quality sectoral research the Commission produced and its value for money studies were also held in high regard in local government.
As an organisation that has local government’s largest benchmarking system, APSE’s Performance Networks, maybe I should be more excited about the opportunities the Commission’s demise creates for others. But I can’t help feeling that we are losing something that brought value to the sector over a lengthy period of time and helped instil a culture of performance awareness that wasn’t as prevalent in the past.