Head of National Audit Office to retire - comment

Sir John Bourn, head of the government’s spending watchdog the National Audit Office, is to retire on 31 January 2008 after coming under pressure to quit.

The Liberal Democrats earlier this month called for his resignation after he ran up large bills for foreign travel and some meals.


In July 2007 Sir John – the Comptroller and Auditor General at the National Audit Office since 1988 – was cleared of any wrongdoing after spending £336,000 on about 45 journeys in a three-year period. The Public Accounts Commission of the House of Commons, which oversees the NAO, found that there was no evidence of impropriety in the use of public money.

Under changes in the the Companies Act Auditors General in the UK will have the power from April 2008 to audit Public Limited Companies and thus they will come under the inspection regime of the Professional Oversight Board of the Financial Reporting Council of which Sir John is the chairman.

Sir John Bourn said today [25 October 2007]:

“Under these new arrangements it would be incompatible for me to hold the positions of both C&AG [Comptroller and Auditor General of the NAO] and Chairman of the Board. I have therefore decided to relinquish the position of C&AG at the end of January 2008, when I shall have completed 20 years in the post, and continue in my position as Chair of the Professional Oversight Board.

“During my term as C&AG I have seen a profound change in the way government works and the role and influence of public sector auditors. Our work now covers topics at the heart of the public debate and our strong focus on improving outcomes leads to lasting improvements. It has been a privilege to lead the NAO through this period.”

Comment:

I have been to the ageing headquarters of the National Audit Office at Victoria many times and even the walls seem to exude probity; and to its credit the NAO has published full details of Sir John’s travel, subsistence and hospitality.

Indeed the NAO is more open than most of the publicly-funded organisations I deal with regularly. Last year it published, under the Freedom of Information Act, its draft reports on the NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT].

Hospitality for Sir John between April and September this year included a polo event on 29 July hosted by US-based services supplier EDS, a major supplier to government. Sir John attended other events hosted by organisations such as PWC and KPMG.

There’s nothing wrong or untoward about this. The NAO says that domestic hospitality is provided or accepted where there is an opportunity to “demonstrate to members of industry, commerce, the profession and public service, the value of our work in improving public services, especially where we are the auditors of programmes to which they are contributing”.

The NAO adds: “It is important to build a strong network of external contacts to support our audits and the development of our work more generally. Details are provided of all hospitality costs incurred by the C&AG and senior staff and of all corporate hospitality received excluding individual working lunches and dinners received from external contacts and events held at the NAO.”

This explains Sir John’s expenses and hospitality. But there’s a perception, rightly or wrongly, that the head of the NAO, who oversees public spending, should be demonstrably frugal in his professional activities. Some people may say that first class travel isn’t demonstrably frugal. And 11 meals between April and September, at which there were usually only two people, cost £1,651.56.

That said Sir John is worth the money. The NAO produces an amazing amount of work on a very tight budget. It’s not perfect – its report on the NHS IT programme was largely a brochure for the Department of Health and its findings on IT at the HM Revenue and Customs are usually deferential – but more often than not the NAO produces some excellent and revelatory reports.

I wish Sir John well.

Links:

Watchdog to step down – BBC online

Announcement by the National Audit Office of Sir John’s retirement

Report of the Public Accounts Commission on NAO expenses

Time for Sir John to go – Lib dem statement

The NAO’s Freedom of Information Act unit is the standard other organisations should strive to meet.

Excellent NAO report on delivering successful IT-enabled business change

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