by Rob Whiteman, CIPFA CEO
Nine years have passed since the coalition government announced it was scrapping the Audit Commission, and four since it formally ceased any residual functions.
Recently, CIPFA and other partners held a roundtable discussion to consider the impact of the watchdog’s work over its lifetime as well as the trends we've seen since it disappeared from the local government landscape in 2015.
Conversation started in the present with how events at Northamptonshire County Council could have been avoided. We were conscious that, in the immediate future, service pressure or failure is still more likely than widespread financial failure. That being said, the forthcoming spending review has crucial importance to the financial sustainability of the sector.
We discussed the need for a reflective and constructive way to learn lessons and draw conclusions on the last decade. Since 2010 we have seen unprecedented change to both sector oversight and local governance. Over this time the sector has moved out of a period of governance and performance convergence into one of intended divergence. What has this meant? What’s going well and what, if anything, have we lost?
These questions open up space to build a shared and authoritative narrative on the opportunity facing councils. We need to consider how to enhance their role so they can lead an effective state at local level – one that fosters economic growth and inclusion.
However, we think there are several barriers within the sector to securing an unambiguous and compelling narrative that all policymakers would support. We see a need to challenge some shibboleths that are used to maintain the status quo, for example in relation to reorganisation, local government’s effectiveness as a national player, variable performance and sector-led improvement, as well as concerns about member/officer relationships and variable good governance.
So while we will all rigorously and unambiguously argue for more resources in the spending review, our roundtable discussion also highlighted some key questions. These include:
- In the absence of an Audit Commission, is some oversight and coordination needed from government to review common themes? These include the interface between elected members and statutory officers, the scope and effectiveness of public audit, and investment in key roles such as CFOs, cabinet members for finance and audit committees.
- Should government ensure better data and tools to help organisations achieve robust medium-term financial delivery?
- Should government go beyond status quo arrangements and commission support for those organisations not facing up to their medium-term governance, performance and financial challenges as well as possible?
At the forthcoming Local Government Association conference, CIPFA will kick off a wide-ranging conversation about resilience and trust in the sector. Questions about audit, oversight and governance will form a key pillar of this. With a range of partners, we plan an essay series and further roundtable discussions.
We do not wish to see Back to the Future, but we do wish to see a stronger sector where performance challenges are interrogated in an open and honest way. This will help build a compelling future narrative for devolution and leadership of the local state and we look forward to contributing to the debate.
This article first appeared in The MJ.