As head of the UK’s public spending watchdog, I lead an organisation that works across the full breadth of public services. This gives me privileged access to the work of the civil service, and a view across how the whole of government is working.
Much of that work is now, of course, framed by the unprecedented nature and scale of the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Before discussing what that means for the NAO’s work, I want to acknowledge the exceptional work being done by public servants nationally and locally, both on the frontline response and in essential support services. I cannot remember such a concentrated period of innovation, cross-boundary working and sheer bravery and hard work in my 33 years of working with public services.
Auditors are by no means on the front line of the Covid-19 response, but we do have a vital role to play in challenging times like these, supporting effective parliamentary scrutiny and providing public transparency and clarity about the impacts of the pandemic on public finances and services. We are also using our ability to look across the work of government to draw together our insights, make them easier to apply in practice, and share them with those responsible for managing public bodies.
We recently published our first report examining government’s response to the pandemic. The report sets out the £124bn of programmes, initiatives and spending commitments the government had announced by mid-May. There had also been 11 ministerial directions provided by permanent secretaries of government departments by early May. This exceptional number of directions vividly illustrates the tough decisions required in this emergency, balancing the need for urgent action with the need to protect the public purse.
“I cannot remember such a concentrated period of innovation, cross-boundary working and sheer bravery and hard work in my 33 years of working with public services”
Our report is the first output in a substantial programme of work by the NAO to support parliamentary scrutiny, looking at both specific projects and initiatives as well as the overall impact of the government’s response to the pandemic. Our next report in June will address the work done to prepare the health and social care sectors for coronavirus. We are also working hard to meet our key statutory duty to audit the accounts of over 450 public bodies at a time when many of those organisations are having to transform how they work, and at speed.
While the impact of the pandemic can seem all-consuming, it is also critical that we continue to keep in view the many other challenges facing the UK. These include the work needed as a consequence of EU exit; the UK’s progress in meeting the government’s net-zero carbon emissions target; ambitious plans to improve national and regional infrastructure; and the wider financial sustainability of public services. This sets up a uniquely challenging agenda for the NAO to support parliament in scrutinising government’s performance.
When I joined the NAO last year, I set out to renew our strategy. In the last few months, we have consulted with parliamentarians, civil servants and other stakeholders about what they would like to see from the NAO. We had open and insightful discussions about how the NAO could make more of what we know from the access we have to information across government. I want the NAO to be an open, learning organisation, building on our existing strengths while developing new expertise and ways of working. I want us to support both parliamentary accountability and the civil service in its drive to improve. I am heartened by the high regard in which the NAO is already held, but the feedback confirmed to me that there is scope for us to be more influential still.
“I am heartened by the high regard in which the NAO is already held, but there is scope for us to be more influential still”
Our new strategy will ensure that we can make a bigger difference. We have three new priorities. First, we will improve our support for effective accountability and scrutiny, providing assurance that public resources are accounted for accurately and used as intended. Where this is not happening, we will point it out.
Second, we will increase our impact on outcomes and value for money, focusing our effort on the issues that really matter and making more insightful recommendations based on our unique analytical and audit expertise.
Third, we will provide more accessible insights. We heard from our stakeholders that it is not as straightforward as it should be to find out what we have learned on a topic and to understand how they can apply this to improve delivery and value for money. We will do more to synthesise what we have learned and make it easier for others to understand and apply lessons from our work.
These priorities feel even more relevant in the current environment, where effective scrutiny and systematic learning will play an important role in our country’s recovery from the pandemic. I and my colleagues look forward to working with those we audit to maximise the value from that work.