Friday, September 24, 2010

The "spirit of openness" and its compliance costs

Central government has put details of its transactions worth over ₤500 on the internet for “armchair auditors”. Local government is doing likewise. This week’s Inside Housing reports that the housing minister Grant Shapps wants housing associations to follow suit in a “spirit of openness”.

If housing associations have to start opening the detail of their books, maybe other independent organisations such as academies and colleges will have to. There are levers to make this kind of thing happen. Colleges already have to publish online their governing body minutes - its enshrined in their governing instrument and articles.

While openness is desirable, such arrangements will have onerous compliance costs, especially for the smaller organisations. Maybe the publication of senior managers' and board members' expenses would be a more practical way forward.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

In a Pickle: the Coalition, the Audit Commission and an article in Public Finance

There are all sorts of explanations of why the Coalition plans to axe the Audit Commission. It is clear that Eric Pickles was not keen on the Commission. If he reads CIPFA’s journal, Public Finance, he’ll be even more keen to have the watchdog put down. This week’s edition carries an incredible article by David Walker – the Guardian journalist turned Director of Communications at the Commission.

In many respects the article, Are you sitting comfortably?, is a rigorous discussion about and robust argument for evidence-based policy making and evaluation – the kind you would expect from the Commission. But David Walker goes much further in presenting “his own views” as a polemical broadside on the Coalition, its proposed abolition of the Commission and its suggestion that “armchair auditors” scrutinise public spending.

In case Eric Pickles was still sitting comfortably, David Walker needles on other topics. For example:

Two glaring examples of evidence-less policy-making stand out from the early months. Gove ploughed ahead with ­parent-run schools without pausing for breath; Health Secretary Andrew Lansley produced his GP consortiums plan fully cooked from his back pocket. Both might have been given geographically delimited trials and both appear to be examples of the hasty policy-making for which the Opposition caned Labour a few years ago.

The government also ceased funding speed cameras without a review or appraisal of costs and benefits. Culling quangos might cut independent appraisal; ministers have seemed unconcerned. The National Policing Improvement Agency – its abolition announced in the summer – has been working on the effectiveness of CCTV. Now there is a subject armchair auditors might have strong views on. What if they clashed with the objective evidence put forth by the analysts?

It’s a great read.

I doubt the Coalition was ever going to think again - in spite of the concerns about how Council performance and value for money will be scrutinised objectively after the Commission - but the article means that a highly improbable U-turn became an impossible reprieve.