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Auditors who keep us nice

How do you picture auditors? As people for whom accountancy was too exciting, or as warm, fluffy, pinkish creatures needing a cuddle?

I beam when I see an auditor. Not, you understand, that we have it soft in the Adult Learning Inspectorate. We have internal auditors, PricewaterhouseCoopers, in for 90 days a year. When we come to the main event it is the comptroller and auditor general and all his legions from the National Audit Office. And for the occasional amuse bouche we get the Department for Education and Skills audit team.

Nor is it that I can afford to feel comfortable about getting it wrong. If the ALI's accounts are qualified so are those of the DfES. The Permanent Secretary and I are then up before the Public Accounts Committee. Although there are departments of state which have their accounts quantified every year, nobody seems quite certain what the Public Accounts Committee has the power to do to you.

The prospect of a very grumpy Permanent Secretary, two hours of public humiliation televised for the enjoyment of the nation and vague imaginings of dark cells awaiting failed accounting officers 50 feet beneath the Commons Tea Room, is enough to worry me. Blow it as accounting officer and you've blown it as chief inspector. Where do I look for solace in this dangerous world? To the auditors of course! Let me explain.

Once every month or so I get a letter from the Treasury which is called a 'DAO'. It has a number indicating that it is one in a series of dozens if not hundreds. DAO stands for - wait for it - Dear accounting officer. These letters have the finance director, the finance manager and me chewing the ends of our pencils.

Not only do we need to be certain what DAO 045793 means for the ALI, but we also need to puzzle out how this one fits in with all its ancestors, sitting there in the file waiting to do us in.

A couple of years back we had a DAO telling us that the Treasury expected that we should comply with the Turnbull recommendations on risk assessment in time for the start of the 20034 financial year and that as accounting officer (more pangs of dread) I should be able to sign a statement on internal control.

Now a statement on internal control is a bit like being hung upside down in chains in that dark, drippy Palace of Westminster cell. It concentrates the mind. The gist is that because I sign the statement on internal control, everything at the ALI is "fair, true and regular" because I say it is so.

Are you still with me?

The ALI employs about 900 people full-time and part-time. Not only am I responsible for what they all do but I am supposed to know what they all do, even unto the remotest crevice of Cumbria or Cornwall. You may be surprised to learn that the development of a risk management system did not wet the sponge of everyone at the ALI. Good, patient souls that they are, breaking down our stated aims and enthusiasms into corporate, divisional and departmental objectives, each with an associated risk assigned to an individual to watch over and control, they found oddly dulling.

However, we took it all very seriously. We even began to see ways in which it could offer greater cohesion to a far-flung business by making expectations and concerns clearer.

Who were our bestest chums in all this? Yes! Auditors. Internal auditors who taught us how to do it and then asked their mates along to test what we had done by poking gnarly fingers into every gap. External auditors by advising me what I could and could not legitimately attest, on the basis of sticking even gnarlier fingers into yet more gaps.

And the process has that golden thread of humanity, admitting that there is no such thing as certainty; just professional care to reduce uncertainty to a reasonable minimum. That, I can live with. I do my damndest to be sure that everyone at the ALI does the job properly and my friends the auditors check out anything that worries me and help me to test whether or not I really am in control.

So how come people in my position in colleges complain about audit? I think they may need to reconsider. It's all very well to talk about "excessive audit". While times are good, audit seems to add nothing to the education of young people and any cost much above zero can be presented as excessive.

When things go wrong, however, how much talk will there be of "excessive audit?" And who ends up manacled to the algae-sodden stonework beneath the Thames? You've got it in one. The principal, not the minister.

Not the members of advisory committees. Not the college governors, even.

The principal. Survival in tough jobs means knowing who your friends are.

And our friends are those reassuring, careful creatures: the auditors.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of adult learning

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