Will Tanner is a Researcher at Reform.
Since taking power in May last year, the Government has rightly attempted to increase transparency in government and devolve power and scrutiny to local communities and individuals. In June last year, the Secretary of State for Local Government urged local councils to disclose details of all spending over £500 in order “to bring about a revolution in town hall openness and accountability”. In August, Eric Pickles announced the abolition of the Audit Commission, the local government spending watchdog, and called for “an army of armchair auditors” to replace its functions.
Yet the ability of any new regime to provide suitable data on public spending and to ensure value for money in public spending remains uncertain. A Reform roundtable lunch yesterday explored just this. The event was held under the Chatham House Rule, so contributions are anonymous, but the discussion revealed a number of serious concerns about the future of the audit regime.
Firstly, how do we audit the right things in the right ways? The advantage of the Audit Commission was that it was able to able to look across the whole country, and different areas of expenditure, in a consistent way. Avoiding falling into silos will be a challenge of a decentralised system.
This leads to the second point. Armchair auditors will need to be able to take data from different places and budgets and compare it. Data will need to be consistent – and it will need to be real. Tricks like “waiting lists for waiting lists” will have to be watched for.
Finally, the cost of audit will have to be watched. Fees from auditors should not be allowed to creep up.
The Government’s focus on transparency and local accountability is undoubtedly welcome. But in order to improve value for money and performance in local public spending there needs to be a sustained focus on setting the right framework for clear, comparable data and independent, comprehensive audit services.