The Performance Audit Report

15 | Patrick Barr, PA Director at the Northern Ireland Audit Office

October 26, 2022
Episode Summary
Transcript

Patrick Barr is Director, Performance Audit at the Northern Ireland Audit Office.

In this episode we discuss:

  • Recruitment challenges and staff attraction strategies
  • The audit office's approach to topic selection and responsive auditing
  • Upskilling performance auditors in the use of data
  • Recent significant reports and their impact
  • Outreach to other offices to share experiences and collaborate.

 

Links:

Episode Transcript

Conor: 

Welcome to The Performance Audit Report. I'm Conor McGarrity. Today, we've got a special guest on the show. He leads value for money teams in his national audit office. Patrick Barr from the Northern Ireland Audit Office, welcome to The Performance Audit Report.

Patrick: 

Thank you very much. I'm glad to be here folks.

Conor: 

Patrick, can you give us a bit about your background, about the Northern Ireland Audit Office, your role, and in particular, what attracted you to value for money auditing.

Patrick: 

In terms of, bit of quick background, studied here in Belfast at Queens. Did a finance degree. So didn't do the accountancy degree at the time, went with finance, after I'd spent few years in Canada. And then when I came back, I did my CIMA qualification. So I figured it was the accountancy qualification for me, because of the strategic aspects to it. Once I did that, I then went and worked an industry for a year, but after 11 month ends, I realized that it wasn't for me. And so I joined Deloitte then at the time and I was there for a while in financial and performance management. Went into public sector after that and then joined the audit office about two and a bit years ago now. Northern Ireland Audit Office. Obviously you know what an audit office does. We're independent. We look at both financial audit and then the performance audit or public report and VFM work. In terms of the office itself, we are currently about 120 staff, and with an aspiration to grow, beyond that. But it's tough market at the minute. So we're, constantly recruiting and trying to, attract people into the office. my role, I have a joint portfolio. So, as a director in the office, I have a number of financial audits. Department for economy, education and then some local government. And then I'm lead director for, the public reporting program. so all directors have responsibility for public reporting, but for me, it's just about facilitating and performance management, managing the program overall. As a CIMA member, what attracted me to audit is a funny question, but it's the performance audit stuff, I guess, is the focus, which very much sits well with the CIMA qualifications. So, you know, the value for money, all the efficiency, work, business models, that's the stuff I'm really interested in kind of how things work, how we can get them to work, more efficiently.

Conor: 

You mentioned there, the difficulties that are prevalent right across the auditing world around attraction and retention strategies for staff. Can you talk us through anything in particular your office is doing in that space?

Patrick: 

It's difficult for a number of reasons. I mean, the, the market just seems smaller maybe, overall in terms of accountancy students and those wanting to do accountancy. And then the competition, it's not just here in Northern Ireland. Everywhere it seems to be quite tough. So, we realize that we are competing for graduates with the big four and with mid-tier firms and with industry firms and so on in Belfast. And that's difficult because, you know, traditionally public sector might'nt have been seen as the kinda aspirational career path for some of the kind of best brightest coming outta the, some of the courses. So, I guess we're really trying to raise the profile of the office, , make it a more attractive place. We've been doing a lot more outreach, so I've been spending time with the university here in Belfast, Queens, and, and also now talking to Ulster University as well. We've just moved into our new building that we've had refurbed. So actually going and bringing the students down here, giving them a walk around doing some of the tutorials here. We would do, guest lectures on public sector governance and that sort of stuff. So really trying to kinda link in with people why they're still, at undergraduate. Also reaching out through our own network, and the newly recruited people. So we've, you'll probably see when we've started doing a lot more on LinkedIn. So just some really short videos of. The benefits of working here and how interesting that actually is, and trying to change the perception, a bit of what public audit and, performance audit in the public sector, are about. It's a key role. So we're trying to attract people that are interested in politics and interested in how government works and. that sort of thing, but it's tough. I mean, and for retention, the new office we're hoping will be both a draw and, to bring people in, but also a big thing for retention, beautiful new gym up on the top floor and nice location, car parking, everything else. And then all the other things in the public sector, the pension and everything. It's it's trying to get those things across and, being honest, new graduates, pension's not really a an attraction necessarily, but, just trying to talk up the benefits, of what we do. And you have to show that the organization's relevant. and a lot of what we do is probably behind the scenes a bit. especially all the financial stuff. No, it's vitally important, but people don't really see it. So I think raising the profile with the, public reporting program. Looking at the VFM and really getting it out there, and letting people see what we do. hopefully that'll attract people to wanna come and work for us as.

Yusuf: 

Talking about maintaining relevance. So moving with a theme and what you need to do to recruit and retain staff, but also the type of work that is done, and how that work is done, in a challenging recruitment setting. What is the audit office doing around innovation within public reporting, value for money auditing, performance auditing.

Patrick: 

We are doing a number of things and some of it is because it makes sense and it's a good idea, and we're moving with things. So using a lot more data analytics and, data visualization tools and so on. but a lot of this has come from the fact that it's a tough market. So traditionally almost all our members of staff are accountants, because there's a tough market for accountants. One of the things we have to look at now is, well, do we need accountants to do some of the value for money? or can we attract, different types of people, people with different skill sets. So, maybe at graduate level or maybe at experienced hire, but people who have different experience then we can use the accountancy resource that we have to focus on the, financial audit. those things around, the program and how we develop the program, that is so important because we have to make sure that it's relevant. We have to make sure that it. of speaks to people, and that people are interested in the reports that we do. If we put out a, even a couple of reports in a row that people just kind of went, so what? That could really impact our relevance and credibility. So we need to be really careful about what goes into our program, make sure it's got support. So we do, we speak to academics. We find out what their research interests are. we find out what's going on, we look at, can we partner? So if we were doing something, for example, on cybersecurity, we're not an authority on cyber security. we have audit Experience so we can go and look at how people are managing the process. but then we probably look to engage with a partner, who has expertise in that area. So we've done that in relation to health, education, we've brought in specialists, and work with them and really it's to give more credibility to, the work that we do.

Yusuf: 

You were talking there about the focus of your work program, making sure that, you know, it continues to be relevant and delivers for Northern Ireland. How is your program of work moving towards what citizens are seeing as their priorities, what they're interested in.

Patrick: 

As you know, with any of these programs, there's a development lead time. and it takes a bit of time and, planning the program and then starting to plan the reports and resource them and so on. and as you're doing that thing to change, and the big example of that was COVID obviously, so we had a three year plan, nice and settled, and everyone knew what they were doing. and then COVID hit, and there was lots of things going on that we had to, pause lots of other parts of the plan and look specifically, at some of the COVID thing. the other, issue that we faced with the plan is, during COVID, there was also a lot more, requirement on the financial audit. so we had to move some resources over under that as well. so that slowed the program a bit. but trying to make it more responsive, we had a high street voucher scheme, that got huge media attention. So I think there was a big expectation that we would do, a big report on that. was outsourced in terms of delivery to a third party who, what they do is card transactions and so on. So there were steps that government took to, lower risk and manage risk. And so it's not automatically to say that it's something we should look at. There were other issues. So there were sports funding and large amounts of money went to, fairly wealthy golf courses and so on. And that created a bit of a stir in Northern Ireland. So that was something that we looked at directly. and we also looked at a scheme that gave 10,000 pound to all small businesses, all relevant, small businesses, in Northern Ireland. So again, there were some issues around that that we thought it was worth looking at to see, we totally understood these schemes had to be designed and delivered pace, but we had to look at these schemes, to. See what learning there could be, especially the 10000 pound. It was one of the first schemes and it was good to see that the department then picked up a lot of learning from that. And then I rolled it into the forward ones. So during COVID, that was the big, you know, that was all where the media was. That's where the citizens seemed to be. And, and so on, we had to take account to that. Going forward, it's gonna be all about consultation. we're meeting with different third sector groups or charitable organizations and, and their kind of bodies and so on. and I'm meeting with departments themselves talking to the financial audit teams to see what's coming outta their work, and being guided by what we get by way of, , a raising concerns process, on those sorts of notifications that come to the office and trying to use all that to design a program that's relevant. It's difficult, I mean the big, area, common now is net zero in climate change. So big, big focus on that. So traditionally not a skill set that we may have had, but definitely a big focus on that now. And that's where people are. Really wanting to, see and talk about and try and understand. So, trying to scale people up in net zero, and see where we can take it and see, what the main focus should be for.

Conor: 

Picking up Patrick, on a couple of terms you used there. You talked about the importance of the office remaining relevant. You talked about raising the profile of the office through various strategies, and then you talked just then about consulting with key stakeholders outside the office to identify the topics that you needed to tackle on your plan and the upcoming years. That all leads us to, making sure that the audit office is maximizing the impact from all its VFM reports and public reporting more generally. Can you talk us through your office's approach to, leveraging all the good work that's done through those VFM reports?

Patrick: 

This'll probably take us into conversation about the current, political situation and, the potential difficulties that we're having at the minute leveraging impact. But, we have a series of reports. We've got a back catalogue reports, and we can follow those up. and I think sometimes with audit one of the most effective things is, follow up. If you do a good report, it gets traction there's recommendations. You really have to go back and look at that, at some point. Some of the reports that we've delivered as follow up reports over this last while have been the ones that really have got a lot of impact. So there was one on special education needs that we did a number of years ago. And then we, revisited and that got a lot of attention. there was a report that we completed in 2019, And it looked at the 10 or 11 major flagship capital programs that the public sector were delivering in Northern Ireland. we find themes of delay across them all for various reasons and so on. So that was in 2019. So it's only, now that we've decided, we're gonna go back and we're gonna look at those 11 programs and see where they are now. And off the top of my head, it's five of them are completed up and running. two or three of them are getting there, but there's two or three of them that are pretty much still stuck, where they were, at 2019 for various reasons. So, that follow up really, gives us something we can look. overall we're independent, obviously. as you know, but we're still part of the overall accountability framework, in Northern Ireland, and the current political situation, our VFM reports all go to the public account committee. And at the minute we don't have a public accounts committee. So the process would be, we deliver our report, we publish it with recommendations. We put some media and stuff in place around that. That's fine. And then it goes to the public accounts committee. They then set up some evidence sessions and hearings. They call officials before them and they gather more evidence. And then there's a, report from the public accounts committee itself, with associated recommendations. So at the minute we're not getting that second piece. and that's the bit of being able to call officials and get accountability. And then the PAC reports, and recommendations have to be formally responded to. That's then where we get the accountability and get to track it. So, difficult situation at the minute until we get, government in Northern Ireland back up and running and PAC back in place. There's, definitely bit of an accountability deficit.

Conor: 

Setting inside the. current political scenario for the second, you mentioned there that your follow up reports in the past have got a lot of traction. is that because the follow up reports have shown a lack of previous traction on the initial findings, or why have the follow ups gained so much traction.

Patrick: 

A couple of reasons. I think, yes, that is. And has been an issue where we've come back to something and said, look, guys, this still hasn't moved on. and that was the case with some of the stuff for special education needs. I think it's also because you've got something to build on, and people have maybe been aware of the previous report and also there's a selection issue. So if we have a back catalogue of reports, the first time you do your report, you're not necessarily sure how exactly it's gonna land.. How it's gonna work or how who's gonna be interested, but if you've done one report and it got a bit of traction coming back to that, you've got a more positive selection, opportunity then. So coming back to something, , that already worked, you've got a bit more assurance that there's gonna be interest in it. and some of those big things, I mean, you know, when we're coming up with a program, we have to think about, spend across departments and so on. So the health budget in North Ireland is, 50% of the overall budget. So should we be spending 50% of our resources, our VFM resources focusing on health and should 50% of our reports be about health, and then education and so on. or should we get a spread across or should we just be driven, purely by the issues and by the interest and, you know, it should be nothing to do with, , how the budget's allocated, but it should just be to do with what people are interested in. the danger there is you constantly looking at some of the same things or the most controversial things. And maybe then not looking at, some of the other things where recommendations could be really helpful.

Conor: 

I think it's fair to say that all offices struggle to some extent with that recipe for their selection of topics. I think as soon as we crack that we'll have made it, but anyhow, on.

Patrick: 

Yeah, no, cause it's it's feedback from the, accounting officers and the, the permanent secretaries. You don't wanna feel like you're always doing reports on one department or, they're gonna feel under a bit of pressure. You know, we do have to be aware of, the impact of our work, as well, and what it does.

Yusuf: 

Moving on to, one of the things that we've been seeing a lot of, recently, is the use of data and visualizations, within performance audit. Interested to get your thoughts on, whether you're focused on data literacy within the team, or, get more specialist people involved in delivering on the data aspects of an audit.

Patrick: 

I guess at the minute, we're doing both. About a year or two ago, we brought in a data scientist, for the first time. Almost everyone in the office was financially qualified. Uh, and that was the focus. and you know, the people working on VFM had data analysis and data management skills, they had research background potentially, or they were able to, do that, but, in the, traditional manual sense. So it was when we brought in the data scientist, then that we started to realize, all the other tools available. And what we could use data analysis for. And then we started realizing that it had a lot more uses. Initially it was the value for money, you know, looking at trends and identifying, efficiency and so on. More recently we've started really using that in the financial audit side as well. Coming up with some data analytics tools that can flag up some areas that we maybe need to focus on, in the financial audit. So that's been really as useful. That's working really well to the point we're now recruiting for second data person. But at the same time, we are trying to skill up teams. So as I say, teams always had general data management focus, and that was fine. But now you're trying to skill 'em up in analytics, and visualization. Now, sometimes we're at risk of using those interchangeably data analytics and visualization, but obviously they're, quite different things. So data analytics is, the bit where we, want the specialist skills. And so we have a kind of central hub for that, but we want everyone to be to a kind certain standard. And with visualization, what we're doing now is we're rolling out some training, across, the data analytics people, but also then those involved in the value for money work. Now, what I found in a way with the data visualization is, it's obviously more than just nice pictures. There's almost an aptitude to just kind of getting it and, and seeing data sets and being able to say, oh, I could represent that this way. So, so some of the training isn't the technical, it's not, here's how to use this package or here's how to use this tool. It's trying to get people into the concepts and trying to get them to understand, engage with the data really early. So as they can, tell a story because, if the pictures just there to be picture, if it doesn't add to the report or help how you're trying to communicate or articulate something, it's not really worth it. And, and obviously, you know, we're not just talking about the traditional kind of graphs and pie charts and that sort of thing. So trying to come up with some innovative ways of, explaining, through timelines and all different structures.

Conor: 

A little bit earlier in the episode you touched on a couple of the reports you guys had worked on, , during COVID and so forth. some really interesting work on your website there and reports, , that you've done. , be really, , good to talk, , through some of those and quite selfishly, we wouldn't mind kicking off with the report you guys published last year and one which will resonate with every performance auditor that's listening, , regardless of country or level of government. And that's your audit title, Closing the Gap, Social Deprivation and Links to Educational Attainment. Can you tell us a little bit about that audit

Patrick: 

That report, had been started, just when I joined the office and then, , took over that area. So, I mean, a really interesting report. the basic premise is we're trying to understand the attainment gap, the educational attainment gap, essentially between those children eligible for free school meals those who weren't. And that's the measure, whether or not it's a good one, there's a whole debate around that. But that's the measure that the department, , were using as a proxy for social deprivation. so what we looked at was achievement at third year, key stage and then GCSE, , across those groups. And we tried to understand changes in educational attainment in those cohorts, in the context of the interventions that were being put in place to try and close that gap. So the attainment gap between those two cohorts is approximately 30 percentage points or thereabouts, and it has remained stubbornly at approximately 30 percentage points for 12, 15 years, So the department undertook a couple of interventions. That report looked primarily at two because they were about 80% between them of the spend. one of 'em was the Sure Start program, which is an early intervention preschool program. and then the other one was a TSN program, which is targeting social need, which gives schools additional funding based on the proportion of children eligible for free school meals that they have. Basically what we find is spend of around about a billion pounds. 912 million something on, on TSN. And then, so it was over a billion total in terms of the interventions, over 10 to 12 year period. Had very little, if any effect on, the attainment gap. So. you can understand. It's a very difficult thing to try and close. it's not just about money. We didn't want our report to be seen as a call for additional funding. Cause it's not about the money. It's about, school leadership. It's about parental involvement. It's about a range of social issues. So, our recommendations, Try to make them as crosscutting as possible because this isn't something that the department of education alone is gonna sort out. This is gonna require input from, department of health, communities and everything else. but that was broadly the finding. Now, we're not educationalists, so it's not really for us to say what you were doing, doesn't seem to have been working. So here's the interventions that you need that will work. But we can say to the department, what you've been doing, doesn't seem to have been working. you're the people with educational knowledge and skills, you know, go back and look at something else. and going back to the data point, one of the findings in that report was one of the reasons it was difficult to confirm if there'd been, impact from the interventions, was that when the interventions were set up, it wasn't made clear at the start exactly how they would be measured. they were set up and rolled out because they were seen as the right thing to do, you know, it it's great the early intervention program and get the kids from socially deprived backgrounds before they start school. but what was the measure of success? they didn't have kind of things in place, so. they've come back to that. and the Sure Start program is now tracking performance through school years. And they're now starting to look at longitudinal studies and so on, but these programs been running for 15 years. and they haven't been properly measured to be able to demonstrate whether they're working or not, and if not, why they're not working. So it was difficult for us to say, this represents value for money or, this doesn't, in some cases we just had to say that we were unable to determine if it did or not.

Conor: 

It's a pretty significant finding when you think not just the in dollar terms, but that extended period where there was no monitoring as to whether success was being achieved or not. It's quite quite stark when you see it written in those terms. Patrick, as with many of the other audit offices, , your team completed a raft of COVID 19 focused reviews. Can you give us a bit of a, flavor? I know you've touched on a couple already, bit of a flavor of that work and, you mentioned there, there was one around, small business grants during COVID.

Patrick: 

Obviously it was recognized that small businesses needed, fairly immediate help. and in Northern Ireland we broadly replicated a scheme that had been set up in, GB. so it was done slightly differently, I think in Scotland, but England and Wales did it, and, the minister here announced that we were gonna provide that support as well, 10,000 pound to small businesses. the difficulty becomes. where's the list of small businesses? who has the definitive list of here's all the small businesses in Northern Ireland that are eligible for this? it doesn't exist really. So, the approach was to use essentially the rating system. so if you were eligible for small business rates relief, and so there's a list of those businesses, but the rating information, it's not a business register. So the rating information had some deficiencies in terms of, this is about small businesses with premises, only. So that was fine. So, it made sense business rates were being paid or they were at least recorded. But in some cases it might have been the landlord who was listed as the rate payer, not the small business. So the money might have went to the landlord. Now, obviously the landlord passes that on. There might have been premises where there was a number of small business registered and also with the rating system because rates are, an annual, issue. the rating information system is really only updated on that basis. This scheme was, kind of rolled out not long before an update to the system. so there were definitely elements of the system that were outta date. Some businesses maybe closed, no longer trading, and so on. the speed at which they wanted to get the money out was important, but also that's what brought the risk. and also, if there's 10,000 pound on offer, There was some, anecdotal evidence at least of, small businesses, being set up to try and claim it, or people saying that they were at a premises and, all those sorts of things. So, very, very difficult. and very briefly, there was a scheme here on, Bed and breakfast. So support for bed and breakfasts and hostels and so on. That's much easier because all bed and breakfasts in Northern Ireland have to be registered with the Northern Ireland Federation of bed and breakfast . so there's a record. There's a list, a definitive list of all the B and Bs and hostels in Northern Ireland, much, much easier. but not a list of all the small businesses and premises. And when I mentioned earlier, the high street voucher scheme. It's also surprisingly difficult to get a list of just all the adults over 18 in Northern Ireland, you know, one definitive list of exactly who those people are and, how that would work. So, again, back to information, back to data, you know, I think government departments have learned from that, that they need better data sets that they need to share data sets. They need to keep them up to date more. so there's a lot of learning has come outta that.

Conor: 

That's probably a pretty common finding, for many jurisdictions in relation to, those small business stimulus grants whereby you know, if departments and agencies had designed the system together share data upfront they could have perhaps had a better approach to their risk management. Stepping away from, COVID related audits just for a second. Can you tell us about some of the other work your office does perhaps in the local government space?

Patrick: 

In terms of value for money, we don't have the same scale of program. but we work slightly differently with, local government in that we have, performance improvements. So we're always looking at their delivery plans and their objectives and targets. and assessing them against achievement of those. But we have done a couple of reports, , more recently, so there was a report on, planning. , because a number of years ago when Northern planning moved from central government function to, local government. so we looked at the transfer of those powers and, whether or not it was working and whether it was efficient. So we looked at, how long does it take for your average planning application? What are the targets. What percentage you're falling within target and so on. Overall we made a number of fairly weighty recommendations. Now we had a lot of input on that report. Lot of consultation, from citizens and various other groups and so on. And the focus really was that there are definite improvements need to be made to the planning system. And also then thinking about the potential knock on impact to that. If the planning system isn't up to scratch, or isn't efficient enough, then that can deter investment. It can deter, , people wanting to build and, construct and so on. So, it's also thinking about the knock on impact of all that and trying to improve the situation. so that was one in planning. We also looked at a, good practice guide on asset management. trying to make sure that, councils understood their asset base and, how they were using it. and then we did an extra ordinary audit, on one council, Causeway Coast and Glens Council. And we looked at pieces of land that had been sold by that council to developers and whether or not they got a fair price for that land. So some of the pieces of land were sold for, I think one of 'em sold for a pound. and essentially it would give access to a large hotel development. the land was probably worth more to the hotel developer, , than a pound . So we were kind of looking at those and, how councils determine what the value is and do they take the proper steps to make sure that they're getting value for money for the rate payers and, so on. So there are a number of findings. came outta that as well. Now that was about one specific council because of the issues that had bubbled up. But we're hoping that when we do a report on one council that other councils start to think about how they might need to implement some changes to make sure, they deal with the issues identified.

Conor: 

So you mentioned there, the good practice guide on asset management for local governments that you've developed, and I saw, I think one or two other good practice guides on your website. The good practice guides? Do they fall out of your more substantive work or are they something that are discrete projects in themselves?

Patrick: 

They're informed by our wider understanding of, what's going on, I guess. And we tend to look at good practice guides as an initial step on something. So we did one a number of years ago on board effectiveness and it was really well received. and they are well received because , they're not audits they're guidance essentially. so people find them helpful. If they create any sort of improvement, that's great. So we did one on board effectiveness. we're working on one at the minute on school governance. , so essentially it's gonna be a good practice guide for school governors and principals and it draws heavily on the board effectiveness, but, boards of school, governors, aren't boards in normal sense. So, we have to make some changes and allowances for that. but how we see good practice guides, is, we put them out there. we expect people to look at the guidance and, pick up what's in there. And then the thinking is that we could circle back around maybe a number of years after, more from an audit perspective. Say well, okay. You know, we've put the good practice out there. Hopefully you've picked that up. Now we're coming back to, look at it in a more substantive way and actually check that you're doing what we said in the good practice guide and then start to take a more audit approach, with a view to getting the good practice embedded, , across the organization.

Conor: 

There's a couple of other, pieces of work that are ongoing that, and listeners should keep their eyes open for, and one's on elective care waiting lists. And I see there's another one, which, , should be really exciting and that's on, Mental health in Northern Ireland. So they're works in progress. So we'll keep our eyes open for those. Some fantastic work and reports on there, Patrick.

Patrick: 

They are, and those, ones are coming soon. And again, the hope is that we have the Public Accounts Committee to be there to help with the overall accountability, of that. That'd be really useful.

Yusuf: 

We started talking about what attracted you to performance audit and all things good about, doing audits of that ilk. Then we spoke about all of the innovation that's going on within the office, and in particular, some of the focus on very important issues like Net Zero. We spoke about how you're maximizing your impact. The increasing focus and training on data, using data within audit. And then a whole raft of really interesting and high impact reports. And I imagine that all of this would be of particular interest to Northern Ireland citizens and government departments, but also on future potential staff that might come into the office. One of the things that we hear a lot about, and relevant to your office as well, is that, people coming into performance audit, get access to data and information and understanding of topics that are important to the nation that they would not normally be able to get access to anywhere else. And so that's really exciting to hear about. And I imagine that, you're looking forward to a bright future within the office.

Patrick: 

.Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, you're right. the relevance is something that we have to use, I think, to attract people. if people can read our reports and think, that report was about the right thing at the right time, that made sense. It had an impact. Those recommendations are actually going to lead to improvements then, you know, if they can really see and value the work of the office, then yeah. They'll maybe wanna come and work. I mean, we also have, obviously as an audit office, we have right of access to government documents held by departments and so on. , and so when we work with some academic colleagues, , they might have a specific interest in, maybe entrepreneurial culture and how entrepreneurs are supported in Northern Ireland, but they don't have that right of access to, , government documents. So, we can work together, leveraging their skills and research and understanding, , and then some of our powers. So, having partnership like that can be really useful. but we also have to think about our work and the responsibility we have, , as an audit office, , because we have to maintain credibility with, wider society , and try to attract people. But we also have to maintain credibility with government. And with government departments and the accounting officers and so on, and, you know, net zero , could be a case in point, I mean the future of net zero and the future of how we're going to, , deal with climate change unknown. I've been a couple of conferences and one of the phrases used was, we're gonna have to back all the horses. we dunno if it's gonna be a hydrogen future or electrification or solar or a combination. So government is probably gonna have to put some sort of subsidy programs in place for all of those. but in 10 or 15 years time, when we look back, not all of those horses will have finished the race. , some won't have, and our responsibility as an audit office is not to say, the money that you spent on those ones. Well, that was a waste. You didn't do this properly. we have to allow space for government to take risks. We have to try and encourage innovation. Going back to our good practice guides, we did one previously on risk management. And we're now doing one on innovation and risk management in the public sector, , to try and encourage managed risk taking and innovation . so we have a responsibility to, yes, look over things that happened in the past use hindsight. that's fine. but use that for the benefit and try and pick out the things that can change in the future and not use it only to say, that didn't work. And there was something recently I was looking at, it was an IT infrastructure project, maybe kind of 20 million. It was maybe 10, 15 years ago. And it maybe hasn't had the impact that was hoped for then, and it was to do with high speed internet. But the main reason that I can see that it hasn't had the impact that was expected is because technology moved on so quickly that it almost became obsolete. So when it built and the money was invested good faith. This was seen as, this is the way to go, and this is what we need to do, for the future. but technology has just taken over it we now have so many different ways of getting the same thing. So, you know, for us to look at that and go back and say, well, that was a waste of 20 million pound, how could you have not known this. And, there might be some learning there about trying future proof your investments and so on. But who really knows the future, it's difficult. We have to be careful about not wanting to push people away from innovative interventions. We have to try and encourage that. But again, we have to try and focus on managed risk taking, and make sure people are aware of their responsibilities.

Yusuf: 

Patrick, as we wrap up, just wanted to understand how, best other auditors can get in touch with you, find out more about the work that you do.

Patrick: 

Through the website, we're contactable through that. I'm on LinkedIn and those other platforms. Fairly easily contacted and, really happy to talk to people in any other part of the world that has similar interests. I mean, like, even from your podcast, I think the first one, the director from the Washington Audit Office, so I contacted him on LinkedIn, said, oh, I heard the podcast. It's really interesting. And so even just being able to reach out to people, I've got in touch with some of the people in the Audit Office in British Columbia, because some of the work they're doing on net zero, that I saw . And so just getting in touch. So we're all facing the same issues. We all have the same kind of focus. And we all seen when I talk to people to be moving in the same direction on a lot of things. So especially in the kind of VFM, performance audit space. Older reports were maybe longer, you know, the big traditional value for money reports, lots of pages, a lot of time, big cost. Whereas now people are definitely moving more towards shorter reports, higher impact, being more responsive, keeping the reports more relevant, even moving to briefing papers and blogs, you know, really, really short pieces, just putting stuff out there rather than kind of taking all this time. And, maybe the report that you're working on being overtaken by, changes. Look, absolutely happy for anyone to get in touch and, I will continue to reach out to people as well as I, see relevance and I'll keep an eye on the podcast and the newsletter as well. And, cuz again, that's a really useful kind of digest of, some of the reports that are going on in other places. That are flagged up that, you know, straight away you go, oh, maybe this is something we should look at. So yeah.

Conor: 

Fantastic. Great having you on the show, Patrick. Thanks for sharing with us all the, great work going on at the Northern Ireland Audit Office. And, I'm sure you'll have a few people reach out to you to take you up on your kind offer. Thanks again.

Yusuf: 

Thanks Patrick.

Patrick: 

No problem. Thanks guys.

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Conor McGarrity
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Conor McGarrity

A specialist in performance audit, Conor is an author, podcaster, and senior risk consultant with two decades experience, including leadership positions in several statutory bodies.
Yusuf Moolla
Your host

Yusuf Moolla

Podcaster, author, and senior risk consultant, Yusuf helps auditors confidently use data for more effective, better quality audits.
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