Positioning statement from the Auditor General for Wales

Thursday, June 11, 2020 - 10:11am

Audit Wales are supporting public sector efforts by sharing learning through the pandemic

As the organisation responsible for scrutinising public bodies in Wales, we have privileged insight into how vital their services are to everyone’s lives, every day – and even more so at a time like this. 

As Auditor General, on behalf of everyone at Audit Wales, and simply as a member of the public, I want to say thank you to those working so hard on our behalf during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How Audit Wales has responded

Like every organisation, Audit Wales has been challenged by COVID-19. Early on, as public services managed their immediate response, it was right that we gave space for that to happen. We suspended on-site work at audited bodies, revised our deadlines and expectations, and transitioned all of our staff to home-working so that we could continue to engage remotely.

Since then, we have continued our statutory accounts audit work to provide a trusted view on the state of public finances whilst scoping and modifying existing and new work.  We have stepped up our engagement efforts and launched a project to provide real time feedback on the learning we are seeing from the response of public bodies to COVID-19.

Now, we are moving to a third phase, maintaining our natural focus on good governance, sound financial management and resilience while also supporting recovery planning.

As we look to the future, COVID-19 will continue to challenge us all. But that challenge also brings opportunity. For Audit Wales, the opportunity to think differently about how we best fulfil our purpose: to assure the people of Wales that public money is well managed; to explain how public money is being used to meet people’s needs; and to inspire and empower the Welsh public sector to improve.

Reshaping public services after the pandemic

In Wales, the Well-being of Future Generations Act [opens in new window] gives public bodies the ambition, permission and legal obligation to improve the well-being of current and future generations. Some may be tempted to dismiss the Act as irrelevant at this time.

But to see it only as a ‘nice to have’ is to misunderstand its core purpose. The sustainable development principle and the five ways of working enshrined in the Act – collaboration, integration, involvement, long-term and prevention - provide a framework for bodies to build the foresight and resilience they need to meet major, complex challenges.

I encourage those in positions of influence in the public sector to use those five ways of working as principles to guide our recovery as they rebuild from the pandemic.

For example, we are seeing urgency and shared purpose at the moment that is driving public bodies to collaborate in new and stronger ways that are very much in keeping with the spirit of the Act. If we can do it in response to crisis, surely we can do it in more normal times too?

Just as the Act envisages, public bodies need to work with a broad range of partners to plan for the transition period and to conceive a different future where we prevent problems from getting worse or occurring at all. They need too to create the space to think and plan collectively, over multiple time horizons, informed by the views of the communities they serve. They need to give a voice to the diversity of their populations, in a world where face-to-face contact is likely to be limited and the need for easy digital access to services more apparent than ever.

And though we talk about ‘the crisis’, we are actually experiencing at least three crises in parallel - in public health, the economy and the environment. So public bodies need to find ways to address the challenges of each with joined-up, complementary actions. For example, configuring public spaces, workplaces and services so that people feel safe during a period of transition from lockdown and beyond, or developing sustainable travel to facilitate economic activity while promoting public health and improvements in air quality and reductions in carbon emissions.

Supporting scrutiny and assurance

Public and political scrutiny sharpens and improves the decision making of public bodies and helps ensure value for money, good governance and accountability. So well targeted and well delivered public audit supporting such scrutiny is essential at this time.

Audit Wales is now refocusing its programme of performance audit work to concentrate on the issues of most relevance as we emerge from the pandemic. As we do this we are continuing our audit of accounts work which is vital in providing the Senedd, our audited bodies and the wider public with an independent assessment of financial management and resilience across the public sector.

Learning and inspiring

We are already seeing many positive examples of the changes organisations are making in response to the pandemic and the myriad challenges they face, be that to governance arrangements, the re-opening of services such as municipal waste recycling centres or the recently launched ‘Test, Trace and Protect’ scheme. To help public bodies capture and share the lessons they are learning, we have established the ‘COVID-19 learning project’.

Rather than the traditional audit approach of examining actions after the event, our aim here is to get alongside public services to capture and share learning in real time. This will be challenging, but it offers enormous potential to support public sector improvement and make the most of our unique perspective and expertise. Our first blog post sharing thinking on our approach to this work can be found here [opens in new window].

Assure, explain and inspire - that’s what Audit Wales aims to achieve and I hope the rounded approach we’re taking in response to COVID-19 means we’ll do just that. Delivering on our statutory responsibilities, of course, but going much further as well.

Using our audit capability to examine the key issues facing the public sector in Wales and so support effective scrutiny; capturing and sharing learning in close to real time; and using our unique perspective across public services to help them emerge from the pandemic stronger and more effective.

We are all in the debt of colleagues across the Welsh public service for the phenomenal work they are doing for the people of Wales. Everyone at Audit Wales will be working to repay that debt by playing our part in helping our public services emerge and recover as swiftly as possible.