With the end of 2015 in sight, we asked Whitehall's top officials to review the year, set out their priorities for 2016 – and shed some light on their festive plans. Sir Amyas Morse, Comptroller and Auditor General at the National Audit Office spending watchdog, takes part in our biggest-ever perm secs round-up series...
How did you tackle the biggest challenges facing your organisation in 2015?
In 2015, pressure to reduce public spending and deliver more with less continued. The context has been fiscal restraint, transformational change in central government, localism, devolution and more contracted-out delivery of public services.
Against this challenging backdrop, we have focused on our vital role of scrutinising public spending and helping parliament hold government to account and improve public services. This has meant understanding the skills and capabilities needed by public bodies, and highlighting the key issues through our audit work and the perspectives we can offer because of our unique access, combined with the powerful influence of parliament.
In 2015, as well as certifying over 400 accounts and producing around 60 major outputs, we diligently supported around 40 evidence sessions of the Committee of Public Accounts, increased the support to other parliamentary committees and reached out to those we audit with more timely and relevant recommendations.
We have also focused on our organisational efficiency. Our value-for-money studies are faster and more focused, and consequently cost less. In our financial audit work, we have made cost savings through a programme of improvements and addressing risks earlier in the process. We are reducing our back office costs.
In reflecting on our achievements, I remember that the source of our authority is parliament and our independence of government. This empowers us to break new ground and challenge departments when necessary.
What are your organisation’s top priorities in the year ahead?
Government is delivering substantial change programmes throughout the public sector, while also reducing its own size and resources. To achieve both, government needs capability in areas such as programme management, digital transformation and commercial contracting.
With this in mind, our priority is to develop and share further expertise – alongside core audit skills – in departments’ areas of main concern, and focus our work there. We aim to better intervene early in government programmes and emerging issues, focus on most at-risk public spending and bring together a comprehensive range of expertise to investigate an issue. We are also looking to respond more consistently to the appetite in public bodies for a greater sense of comparative performance and best practice.
What film do you hope to watch over the festive period – and what is the best game to play with the family on Christmas Day?
During the Christmas break, I want to find time to watch Pulp Fiction – such a great film! – and play charades. Christmas isn’t Christmas without charades!
Perm secs round-up 2015: Whitehall's top civil servants review the year – and look ahead to 2016