At the sharp end of Scottish scrutiny

By Ann McGauran | 29 July 2020

Prime Minister Boris Johnson highlighted the Treasury’s financial assistance to Scotland during the pandemic during his visit there last week. Meanwhile, it emerged that in every region of the UK people feel Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, is doing a better job during the crisis than Mr Johnson.

And when it comes to local government oversight, the chair of the Accounts Commission in Scotland, Graham Sharp, believes the scrutiny system in Scotland is ahead of England. Director of performance audit and best value at Audit Scotland, Fraser McKinlay, is also the controller of audit, and reports to the commission on issues of public interest in local authorities. ‘So we have an early warning situation’, explained Mr Sharp. ‘We don’t wait until the accounts turn up and read them.’

He added: ‘My view is that the Scottish system is better than the English system as it currently stands. I think having a controller of audit who focuses on issues in councils and having a body that he reports to who can react to that and can take action – even if that action is highlighting issues as we are a scrutiny body not a regulator – is really important.’

Mr Sharp’s tenure as chair of the Accounts Commission was due to end in September 2021. His decision to step down at the end of this month was made for health-related reasons, with Elma Murray appointed as interim chair.

He told The MJ he believes the trajectory on continuous improvement has been positive, with better levels of self-awareness and service redesign on the radar for all councils.

On the negative side, he highlights how councils are ‘now operating in a much more complex world that has changed a great deal’.

‘There’s a lot more financial pressure and a lot more complexity in policy objectives, and that’s national, regional and local. Clearly that puts extra demand on them.’

Mr Sharp joined the commission as a member 11 years ago, before taking over as chair in 2017. Originally trained as a chartered accountant in Glasgow, he had a wealth of private sector experience before moving into the public sector, mainly in the City of London.

After co-founding and building a commercial property investment company, Mr Sharp carried out research at Oxford in corporate strategy. He returned to corporate finance advising companies based in Asia on expansion in Europe. He then moved to the public sector, serving on several commissions including the Accounts Commission, the Gambling Commission and the Competition Commission.

Why did he decide to step up to the role of chair? Mr Sharp told The MJ he felt his private sector background supplemented with his public sector experience, and his membership of the Accounts Commission ‘gave me a perspective that would enable me to contribute to developing the commission’s work, and in particular I believe a strong background in finance and economics is relevant to the commission’s work and I could provide that’.

What changes has he noted over his 11 years with the commission? With the commission’s focus on best value and performance, it is always pushing to improve things, he said. ‘But if I stand back and look at the overall picture, I would say that financial governance and management is in pretty good shape in councils in Scotland.’

‘We’ve moved forward on financial planning,’ he added. ‘Three or four years ago you would still hear finance directors saying well we can’t really do more than a year [of planning] as we only get a year’s budget from the government. But now every council in Scotland has a medium-term plan.

‘Our main push now is to go for long-term scenario planning that sits in with service redesign. That’s moved on a lot.’

Reserves used to be a very opaque area, but ‘on reserves we’ve got much greater transparency, and if you look at it in the last 10 years we haven’t had a public hearing. The last one was in Shetland in 2010. In the 10 years before that there were at least four public hearings. I think that shows that things have improved.’

Looking ahead, as we come out of COVID-19, Mr Sharp is optimistic in terms of councils’ processes and management, but at the same time the challenges they have got have never been greater, he believes.

With the economic impact of the pandemic ‘still unknown, and with any potential disruption from Brexit completely unknown’, his view is ‘we just can’t be optimistic at this point – the word would have to be “uncertainty”’.

In Scotland there are a host of good things about councils in the areas of quality of life and supporting communities and individuals, he points out, but ‘fundamentally the economy drives everything’.

As he looks to the future, he does not believe the organisation needs to be refocused. ‘We’ve been doing a lot of good work over the years, and that provides a base. You could use that to go in different directions. It’s about which way you want to develop it.’

The achievement he’s happiest about from his last few years with the commission was the refocusing of its annual overview reports – which had been principally retrospective. Now they have been refocused to better support councils and government in decision making, looking at future trends and potential impacts. For example it supports local council directors of finance in the budget setting process, and the timing of its Financial Overview, published in December each year, reflects that.

Alongside that, the commission also produces national performance reports and many of those are now joint with the Auditor General, because of the way government and councils have integrated in terms of policy objectives.

In terms of landmark audit work, the commission ‘pushed for more economic themes, such as city deals, privately financed infrastructure models’.

The commission’s best value audits of local councils in Scotland are central to its work, and critical because they are the only independent reports telling local people how their council is performing. It is continuing to focus on moving its best value work more into the annual audit.

The impact of COVID on local government finances in Scotland is set to be investigated by a Holyrood Committee. Some councils are coping better than others, said Mr Sharp. ‘Those councils that have been ahead of the game in terms of their medium- and long-term financial planning and their community engagement have been better placed.’

Structural issues matter too, he concluded, even if these are outside the scope of the commission. ‘We have highlighted to local government and the Scottish Government that they should have a look at whether they are satisfied with the way the monies that are made available to local government are distributed. Is the formula that distributes the funding still achieving what we want it to?

‘The demands on councils have changed in the past 10 years and we think it’s worth looking again to see if the formula actually is reflecting the policy objectives at the different national and local levels.’

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