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Cost of Living and Putting Away the Bayonet

21 September 2022
  • We are looking at the impact of the cost of living crisis on communities in Wales. This is the first in a series of blogs looking at how audit can help public services respond to the crisis.

    When I joined District Audit over 20 years ago my father-in-law asked me if I knew the definition of an auditor...

    Having just been through the gruelling interview process I started to blurt out the official ‘line’. Before I’d embarrassed myself too much, he stepped in and enlightened me with the following…

    “According to Sir Charles Lyell (1797 – 1875), an Auditor is the person who watches the battle from the safety of the hillside, and when it is over, comes down and bayonets the wounded.”

    That’s fairly gruesome imagery that has stuck with me over the years. It wasn’t the sort of job I thought I’d signed up for. I was enrolling in District Audit to try and make things better! ‘Improving Public Services’ had definitely been in the job advert.

    Thankfully, for me, it hasn’t turned out anything like Sir Charles Lyell described. Today, Audit in Wales is about improvement through a process of Assure, Explain and Inspire. It’s also about building trust in public services, a cornerstone of society. If Audit does its job right, we as members of the public can all be assured that public services are doing the best they can.

    So where does this fit with the current Cost of Living crisis?

    20 plus years of working in audit has taught me many things, and the main one is that ‘sitting on the hillside’ does give you a privileged viewpoint. You can see what’s going on, and you can get a sense of what’s coming over the horizon. It’s what you do with that information that matters. How do you use it in a way that helps to improve the situation?

    This is essentially the point of this post. My current role in Audit Wales is around Research and Development (R&D); ‘sitting on the hillside’ and looking at what’s going on. Things like the cost of living crisis; climate change adaptation; post-Covid recovery; the impact of ongoing shifts towards digital services and a thousand other things that are coming over the horizon or are already with us. The author William Gibson said, “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”.

    Amongst all of these things the cost of living crisis is the most urgent and most likely to have a direct impact on the lives of people in Wales over the next six months. So, what can audit do about it?

    I mentioned earlier the process of Assure, Explain and Inspire. This is where I think audit fits in:

    • Assure – have we done what you might expect from audit to make sure that money and resources have been properly used to do the things that were needed?
    • Explain – has audit shared knowledge and information about what they’ve seen, so that people can make more informed decisions about public services?
    • Inspire – has audit, in relation to what it’s done, or shared, made people feel like they can do something different (better)?

    Some of my colleagues have been working to explain and inspire for a while. Drawing upon their deep knowledge, experience and interests they have shared information and views about the issues important to the people of Wales.

    For example, this blog on the impact of low birth rates on school places generated a lot of debate at the end of 2021. 

    In 2020, a number of other colleagues shared information they had encountered through their work with Public Services responding to the Covid pandemic.

    Come down from the hillside

    Building on previous work to share what we know, Audit Wales is planning to share information about the cost of living crisis via blogs over the next six months. This will be coordinated through the R&D Team and will done in a way that we hope public services will find helpful.

    These won’t be polished audit reports or highly detailed reviews, it will be material drawn from our ‘position on the hillside’. Things that we think might stimulate some thought, or even inspire.

    The topics will be varied and will reflect the experience and interests of the Audit Wales staff who write them. So expect things as diverse as; the impact of inflation on capital budget planning (fairly standard) through to the impact of energy costs on keeping swimming pools open and the ability of future generations to swim.

    They will also fit alongside some detailed audit work that looks at how Public Services are responding to poverty across Wales. There will be a number of events around this topic in October.

    I mentioned earlier that it’s important to do something useful with the information Auditors gather from ‘sitting on the hillside’. We would we grateful to have your feedback on the blogs and use it to inform some of the work we do. If our audit work is informed by listening to feedback from a diverse range of people, in my view, there’s more chance that we will Assure, Explain and Inspire.

    So… no bayonets, just sharing what we’ve seen from our privileged position on ‘the hillside’ and listening and talking to the people who are interested, and to who it matters.

    • In October, our Good Practice Exchange team will be delivering events designed to bring people together from across public services to share ideas, learning and knowledge on how organisations can respond to the challenges caused by poverty. To register your interest, please complete our online booking form: Cardiff/Conwy.

    About the Author

    Chris Bolton is the R&D Manager for Audit Wales and prior to that set up and managed the Good Practice Exchange for many years. In 2018 he completed a Churchill Fellowship that involved travelling to the USA and Spain to study the governance of large cooperatives and social enterprises. He is also the Chair of Merthyr Valleys Homes, Wales first Tennant and Staff Mutual. Chris blogs regularly at [opens in new window]