Does the National Audit Office fail to hold senior responsible owners to account?

On this blog on 16 July 2007 I posted a piece that asked whether the public spending watchdog the National Audit Office is too timid. A reader has posted an excellent reply.

A blog reader writes:

You state that:

“In its style of reporting to Parliament, the National Audit Office is very British: its writing is characterised by understatement and politeness. The factual content of Its reports is agreed with the departments and agencies; most gentlemanly and consensual.” … “There’s every reason to believe that staff at the National Audit Office are at least as competent and investigative as the researchers at the Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General in the US.”

In my opinion the National Audit office is outdated and outmanouvered. It is outdated because it simply fails to hold Senior Responsible Owners to account. These are senior civil servants who appear more interested in turf battles about budgets and the size of their personal fiefdoms rather than the efficent use of public resources. The gentlemanly language may have had its place pre-World War 11, but in an environment dominated by a catalogue of expensive, delayed and often ineffective IT systems, it is time to start calling a spade a spade. SRO’s should be named and shamed – the Child Support Agency is doing it, why not the NAO?

Regarding the outmanouvered point – Government departments rarely seem to take real notice of NAO criticism – if they did why has the performance of IT projects not improved. If you look at modern corporate audit practice in the private sector, the auditors are increasingly focussing on auditing in-flight projects – trying to recommend improvements before they fail rather than stating the obvious after they failed.

Why not give the NAO real teeth – allow it to challenge failing projects whilst they are still being executed, and if necessary stop work on the project until appropriate governance and contractual mechanisms are in place. At least it could then be seen to be protecting the taxpayer rather than providing anodyne reporting after the event.