NAO chief puts digital and AI in the frame for ongoing modernisation

Gareth Davies discusses how the last 12 months have marked a ‘key milestone’ in the organisation’s transformation, and why technology can play a key role in further reform in 2024

The yearly Permanent Secretaries Roundup published by PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World sees government’s senior leaders discuss the experiences of the past year – as well as shedding light on their plans for festive season and beyond. Gareth Davies, head of the National Audit Office, reflects on the organisation’s progress in delivering a long-term reform programme. 

Tell us three words that sum up your 2023…
Cost, resilience and transformation.

…And why you chose those words  
Cost, because 2023 was dominated by the impact of sustained high inflation on living standards and government’s spending power. All major infrastructure programmes have been affected, some dramatically. Pay disputes have disrupted public services and slowed recovery from pandemic backlogs. The higher interest rates needed to tackle inflation have increased the cost of servicing government’s debt to the extent that debt interest is now the equivalent of one of the largest government departments.

Resilience, because an inescapable lesson of Covid-19 was the need for better resilience planning. At the NAO, we’re adapting our approach to look directly at the planned mitigation of national risks, such as the impact of extreme weather. The question of what constitutes good value for money in improving resilience needs more work, including from us.

Transformation, because 2023 saw us deliver our new audit methodology and software platform, a key milestone in our multi-year audit transformation programme. It’s an exciting time for our audit practice, keeping up with rapid professional and technological developments and offering better quality and insights to the departments and public bodies we work with.

What are your organisational and personal priorities for 2024?  
2024 to 2025 is the final year of the five-year NAO strategy we developed after I took up my post in 2019. So, we’ll be working with our stakeholders in 2024 to review our progress and develop our new strategy for 2025 to 2030. We’ve modernised our audit approach and focused on our impact on improvement, making the learning from our work accessible to practitioners, policy makers and parliamentarians. I’m excited by the chance to build on this and respond to the big opportunities and challenges for government ahead – which must include productivity, resilience, digital and AI, sustainability, improving outcomes for those using public services and delivering value from investment in major programmes. You can read more about our work here.

For me personally, arriving at the half-way point in my 10-year term in office concentrates my mind wonderfully. Five years left to fully realise my ambition for the NAO to be an exemplary organisation in our impact, quality and engagement with staff and stakeholders.

What’s your favourite festive treat, and what makes you say: ‘Bah, humbug’?  
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s old recipe for Granny Jane’s Christmas pudding (still available online) has been a favourite in our house for more than a decade. Stirred up in late November, it’s reliably matured and tasty by Christmas day.

Bah, humbug to blue flashing light displays in front gardens!

All entries in Civil Service World’s 2023 Permanent Secretaries Roundup can be read here

PublicTechnology staff

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