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Lucy Herman recounts her experiences leading the audit of Public Services Ombudsman for Wales
Public Service Ombudsman for Wales (PSOW) final accounts audit has now been completed. At Audit Wales we’ve had to adapt the way we do our audit work during the pandemic, and as accounts came in thick and fast here are some of our experiences on the positives and pitfalls of remote auditing.
We had no data sharing system in place with the client as there hasn’t been the need to consider this before. So, a few weeks prior to the start of the audit we checked what systems if any were in place to provide the working papers in a secure way. Audit Wales IT department set up Objective Connect which enabled us to access working papers in a secure way. This is something that PSOW has found extremely useful and are considering using across their organisation going forward.
This is not just related to conversations with the client but in our teams as well. For PSOW apart from a few emailed working papers we had not done any element of this audit remotely as pre Covid it was traditionally an onsite audit. So, in our initial meetings we discussed the realities of remote working and accepted that there will be obstacles on both sides, but this is just something we have dealt with as issued arose..
We were a team of 3 myself, plus two others as well as a manager and engagement lead , so we had lots of informal skype meetings as and when required to discuss issues as they arose. Skype was an effective way to clarify issues rather than using email. But for larger teams skype isn’t always the best option. For example on audit of Hywel Dda Health Board where there are 10 team members , we found using Microsoft Teams and the team chat function more effective, as a way for the team to share knowledge without downing tools to attend a skype meeting.
Between the team we had varying circumstances regarding our home life, and we had to consider how this impacted all our availability during the day. Personally, having a 5-year-old and a feisty 2year old (who during lock down is experiencing a major case of the terrible 2s!), I couldn’t commit to always being available at key times in the day. Discussing our availability and the barriers we faced as a team we set out reasonable options to overcome this for example by utilising the experience of team members and the audit manager if for example I personally wasn’t available and vice versa.
At PSOW we had one key contact who was responsible for uploading the working papers, samples and answering our queries etc. Given this, at times he was bombarded with queries from us all on the team. Working remotely, the general conversations of what we were working on, information we needed, queries we had with the client etc was at times lost and occasionally we all were requesting information from the client at the same time. In a traditional onsite audit you don’t usually see auditors queuing up with queries/demands however working remotely this is what it felt like for the client at times. This was one of the pitfalls of the remote working however having open conversations with the client we reassured them not to feel pressured with our demands.
We experienced difficulties in trying to obtain payslip information for the Ombudsman as he is paid directly by the Senedd. The PSOW was having difficulties as any password protected document sent to them via email was blocked thus they weren’t able to provide this information. However, given the nature of this disclosure we needed to see the evidence and relying on an email confirmation of the figures wasn’t a suitable option. In the end the Senedd was able to provide this information directly to us, bypassing PSOW. As obvious as this may be this is just one example of where we had to move away from our usual ways of obtaining information.
From the experiences at PSOW it shows auditing remotely can be done and can throw up a few surprises like the Financial Accountant attending the catch up meeting sitting on the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones! Yes, there will be challenges but in these unprecedented times the fact we can achieve our aim of completing the audit of the accounts outweighs any difficulties!
Lucy Herman is a Senior Auditor in West Wales and has been with the organisation close to 10 years gaining a wide range of experiences working across a range of Public Sector financial audits. Lucy is a Chartered Accountant and Member of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales gaining her qualification through the Audit Wales trainee scheme.