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NAO updates framework to review programmes

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 27 Apr 2021

A National Audit Office framework that outlines 18 audit questions the NAO asks when reviewing major programmes is a valuable document for both management and audit committees of public sector entities running major programmes.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has recently published the third update of its framework to review programmes, developing previous versions produced in 2017 and 2019.

The framework outlines 18 key audit questions, grouped into four subject areas, that the NAO asks when reviewing any major programme or project. For each question, the framework provides a series of sub-questions, as well as two detailed examples of findings from recent NAO studies conducted between 2010 and January 2021 that illustrate the importance of the question and the risks of not addressing it. There are also links to several other examples from NAO reports, with paragraph references showing where the question was covered.

The framework is one of an increasing number of pieces by the NAO that aim to share the overall themes and findings from its audit work across central government to help all public sector bodies understand and implement the lessons learnt. This is in line with its five-year strategy published last year. Last month, the NAO published a senior leaders’ guide to managing business operations.

The NAO also express a desire in their strategy to “be known as a valuable source of knowledge” and they have set up six knowledge hubs covering:

  • Major projects delivery;
  • Financial and risk management;
  • Commercial;
  • People and operational management;
  • Analysis; and
  • Digital.

It is essential the government gets these areas right, so it is welcome that the NAO intends to focus on them. Public sector bodies must take advantage of such resources to learn lessons from the experiences of other bodies.

The leadership of organisations undertaking major programmes and the management of those programmes should ask themselves the 18 questions in the framework to ensure they are running the programme in line with best practice. Audit committees should also proactively use the framework to scrutinise programmes and ensure management can answer the questions.

One of the questions is “have the right people bought into the programme, such as users, suppliers, those who have to implement it?” In response, the NAO highlights the report on achieving net zero, where it found that the government had not clearly set out the roles of local authorities, despite their importance in reducing emissions in housing and transport. Effective partnership working with local authorities will be essential for successfully tackling many important upcoming challenges in addition to achieving net zero, such as resolving the long-term social care crisis. Central government departments must learn from this example and consider how they work effectively with local authorities.

Whilst NAO reports tend to focus on central government, this framework is also useful for local government. One particularly important question is “are there structures (internal and external) that provide strong and effective oversight, challenge and direction?” ICAEW previously reported on research by Grant Thornton on recent public interest reports that highlighted the risks of inadequate challenge and oversight over major programmes, including Nottingham Council’s creation of Robin Hood Energy. The framework identifies the NAO’s investigation into preparations for COVID-19 vaccinations as a good practice example of effective governance.

Oliver Simms, Manager, Public Sector Audit & Assurance for ICAEW, commented: “The broader National Audit Office insight pieces may not generate the headlines of its critical evaluative reports but they provide valuable lessons in priority subject areas. Management and audit committees of both central and local government must take advantage of this valuable resource.

“This framework provides 18 key questions that public sector bodies must ask themselves as they undertake major programmes to help build the recovery from COVID-19 and tackle the major challenges.”