NAO head on the challenges of assessing major projects via ‘fully remote auditing’

Gareth Davies also reveals his organisation’s penchant for online treasure hunts

Credit: NAO

In a year unlike any other, senior figures from across the civil service took part in PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World’s annual perm secs round-up to discuss how the unprecedented 12 months affected them and their organisation, and look ahead to 2021.

Click here to read more from a wide selection of government leaders.

Auditor general Gareth Davies and his colleagues at the National Audit Office have had to find ways to use digital platforms to run the rule over major government projects – as well as adapting to virtual Christmas festivities.

What are you proudest of the National Audit Office achieving in 2020?
Thanks to the skill and commitment of my colleagues and the cooperation of departments, we have delivered a timely programme of reviews of government’s spending on the key elements of its pandemic response, allowing Parliament to base its scrutiny on up to date and detailed analysis. Our focus is on identifying the learning for the rest of this pandemic and future emergencies. We’ve done this whilst also reporting on other vital areas, such as the preparations at the border for the end of the EU exit transition period and how government is organising itself to deliver net zero carbon. I’m also proud of the professionalism of our audit teams in smoothly adjusting to fully remote auditing without compromising on quality. This has needed innovative thinking and close cooperation with finance teams and audit committees to maintain the flow of audited annual reports and accounts at this vital time for public accountability. All this has only been possible because of sterling work from our IT, HR, facilities and other business support teams.

What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2020?
I’ve found it an incredibly demanding but also intensely rewarding experience. Ensuring that we do our job well in extraordinary circumstances, supporting our staff to work in new ways at a time when many of them faced personal challenges and continuing to improve the organisation in line with our new strategy – these have been tough to hold in balance. A big help in striking that balance has been our regular pulse surveys for all staff which we ran weekly at the start of the crisis and have now settled down to three-weekly. We have been able to identify pressure points and take action quickly and our internal communications are much better than before the pandemic. That’s one of several positive changes we will be building on in the new year as we consider how we want to work together once restrictions are lifted.

What are the main challenges facing government in the coming year?
Alongside the obvious challenges of delivering the vaccines programme and managing the continuing risks of Covid-19 infection, many departments will be dealing with the knock-on impact on demand for public services. These include backlogs of NHS diagnosis and treatment, higher levels of universal credit claims, practical support for those seeking work and catch up support for school pupils and so on. There’s also the considerable ‘clean-up’ task facing departments such as HMRC and BEIS as the scale of fraud and error in the employment support and business loan schemes becomes clearer. Away from the pandemic and its aftermath, government will be preparing for COP26 in Glasgow by redoubling its net zero carbon efforts. It will also need to manage the impact of new border arrangements from 1 January and complete the staged introduction of import controls in 2021. The financial sustainability of key public services at local level will continue to be a concern following recent high profile financial failures. We also need to be aware of the impact on our people of our collective experience in 2020 – recovery and resilience will need close attention.

People will have to be more creative about celebrating this year. How will you make the festive period on Zoom special?
The talented bunch on the NAO social committee have organised a range of events including an online Christmas escape room, a festive quiz and a treasure hunt. Our Christmas carol service also goes virtual this year and a festive playlist has been building on the intranet for weeks. Teams are making their own arrangements for social events by video conference, although I think we’ll all miss the chance to celebrate in person. Here’s hoping for less time in front of a screen next Christmas.


Sam Trendall

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