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Birmingham children’s services: can we audit our way to performance improvement?

I have a chartered accountant friend who described auditors as “those who turn up once the battle is over and bayonet the wounded!” His comment left an indelible picture in my mind that has stayed with me ever since.

But to be serious, what is the purpose and roll of an audit?

Put simply, it is an independent and usually external review of an organisation, its practices and performance. Its role is to provide an objective assessment of what is happening for the owners (be they shareholders in the private sector or government and tax payers in the public sector) and provide feedback to management. It should say what is going right and what is going wrong. Increasingly these days it includes recommendations of what should be improved.

But as the quote points out, they don’t run the business or organisation they are auditing. That is not their role and usually not their expertise. So I see the role of audit as different to that of running the organisation.

Telling an organisation that it is failing may be an important first step in surfacing a problem. Telling an organisation repeatedly that this is the case every year for 10 years isn’t helpful. It is simply a measure that things are not going right and that something has to change and so far it appears that that something hasn’t happened yet.

Knowing that something is wrong doesn’t solve that problem. Yesterday morning on BBC’s Radio 4 it was even suggested that the continued barrage of criticism was now becoming part of the problem and not the solution. People may need to say these things to distance themselves from the situation, but when this undermines staff morale and recruitment efforts, this stops being helpful.

What is needed is space for the organisation to stop focusing on audits and build a real plan of performance improvement. It requires a shift of focus from measuring performance to taking actions and planning initiatives that improve performance. It will take leadership and staff engagement. It will not happen overnight.

So audits can highlight a problem and hold a mirror up to the organisation so that they can objectively review what they are doing, but in themselves they are not a solution to a deep seated and systemic organisational problem.

Mike Bourne

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