By Victoria Barnard, Senior Consultant CIPFA
As local authority financial accountants will be all too aware, the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 requires that from 2017/18 onwards, the deadlines for accounts preparation and completion of the audit both move, to May 31 and July 31 respectively. This means two three-month processes need to become two two-month processes.
Recognising the huge challenge this will mean, many authorities are starting to look at speeding up now. Each has different issues to address, but we have identified some common areas where most authorities could improve, based on best practice ideas from current fast closers as well as standard project management and lean process techniques. For example:
Is your closedown process genuinely managed as a project? Do you have an effective project manager - someone who knows how the project is progressing, in detail, at all times, who makes resourcing switches to react promptly to any problems, who oversees all key decisions and who provides all updates to stakeholders such as the s151 officer?
Manage the risk
Are you thinking clearly about the project in risk terms? Many authorities focus on one risk – that of closing the accounts on time and correctly – but the whole process has multiple elements of risk which need to be managed separately. In recent years, for example, NNDR accounting has risen to the fore – a risky area in terms of both getting the required data inputs and the potential bottom line impact. But many authorities still devote relatively few resources to manage this element. Risk registers, dynamic timetables and other tools can help a project manager ensure the riskiest areas get the highest attention.
Adopt an approach of “Do it once, do it right” – stop wasting valuable time adjusting figures already calculated or journalled. Quality assurance can help here – before anything goes on the ledger, get it checked. The person checking needs to be given enough information to let them genuinely assure themselves that the proposed journal is correct, and the procedural framework must ensure they can speak up if in doubt.
Do your key financial systems work well, or are you fighting them to get what you need, perhaps doing a lot of spreadsheet reconciliations? Does everyone have access to the systems they need, and have they had enough training and use of them? Does everyone understand the Chart of accounts, and does it serve the needs of both the budget monitoring and final accounts processes? Do you have a reliable system for actually compiling the accounts, based on the latest Code requirements and using automated calculations whenever possible to ensure minimum user errors?
Every council has opportunities to speed up its closedown process, and CIPFA has tools, guidance, training and consultancy support available to help you make the changes you need.