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How the NAO is dealing with COVID-19

30 June 2020: Kate Mathers, an executive director of the National Audit Office, talks to Maria Byrnes from ICAEW about the impact the COVID-19 crisis is having on the National Audit Office and how it has shaped their work.

Kate Mathers, like almost 50% of workers in the UK, has been forced to work from home by the COVID-19 pandemic. As an executive director of the National Audit Office, it has been quite a change. "There has barely been a more challenging time for any of us," she says.

Mathers emphasises that the main priority for her and her team has been to support staff and make their safety and wellbeing the main priority. "We really tried to prioritise making it work for our people and giving them as much support as we possibly can; recognising that these are tough times and making sure that we all cut each other some slack and look out for each other, to adjust to different ways of working."

Apart from people pulling together and teams supporting each other, technology has made this possible. "What this has shown is that with the right technology, location and geography become almost irrelevant."

The NAO was well prepared for homeworking, which made adapting to the new normal much easier. "Our systems as an audit office were already set up for secure remote auditing. People are often away from the office at client sites, so our systems help that." It was a case of getting used to the new, permanent set up of working from home, including doing everything by video conferencing and figuring out how to "support and coach teams through a piece of work" via screen sharing, rather than in person.

But the pandemic hasn't just had an impact on the practicalities of working. It's also impacted on the nature of Mathers's and the NAO's work.

Mathers joined the NAO in 2000 and trained with them to become a chartered accountant. She leads the NAO’s audit service line and is also responsible for the range of work the organisation does with departments that are focused on culture, justice and welfare. As the UK’s independent public spending watchdog, the NAO's role is to investigate whether public resources are accounted for accurately and if they are used as intended.

"Is taxpayers’ money being accounted for properly? Are public services and projects value for money? If we find that's not happening, it's our job to point that out, and to use our insight to make recommendations for what bodies can do to improve financial management, to make financial savings, or provide better public services. I think that's a big responsibility and it's a really rewarding and challenging role to have."

While it might be too early to precisely pinpoint the implications on public spending and services of the government's response to the Coronavirus pandemic, it's clear that it will be profound.

"Right now, NAO audit teams are in the thick of our busy season for completing the statutory audit of the government's annual reports and accounts [year-end 31 March]. Like others in the wider audit profession, we’re having to address some pretty unique financial reporting and audit implications arising from COVID; and, alongside the technical challenges, we’re also having to navigate through all of this remotely."

Last month saw the publication of the NAO’s summary report on the government’s response to COVID, which concluded that the government had announced “over £124 billion of programmes, initiatives and spending commitments in response to the pandemic."

Alongside its broad programme of work across government, the NAO also is planning further in-depth Covid19-related reports to support parliamentary scrutiny requirements. As part of this, it will look at the government's "preparedness for the pandemic, spending on the direct health response and spending on measures to protect businesses and individuals from the economic impact."

However, Mathers also points out that it's about the right balance. "We are mindful of the pressure responding to Covid-19 is placing on the government and public servants so we very carefully consider our work, how and when we do that, so we don't get in the way of the emergency response but we still provide parliament with timely reporting."

It's this real-life impact of the sector that she particularly enjoys about her job. "At the NAO, what we look at is what matters to the public…We've got a really privileged insight into how vital public services are to everyone's life every day, and I think even more so in times like this."

While there's certainly plenty to get on with during the current crisis, Mathers explains that she and the NAO are also "heavily focused on the audit quality agenda, the whole profession is, and we take it just as seriously as the firms."

She adds: "When you think about what sits at the heart of being a chartered accountant, it's the need to act ethically, with integrity, with real professional expertise and rigour and to always act in the public interest. That resonates so strongly with me in my role at the NAO.”