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Social mobility: how Audit Wales is rising to the challenge

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 25 Feb 2022

The Auditor General for Wales has launched a number of initiatives to bring people from different backgrounds into its staff and introduce them to other parts of the Welsh public sector.

Wales is home to some of the UK’s most deprived communities. Indeed, in early February, the Salvation Army called for a rethink on how the country’s Levelling Up funds are allocated, citing investment in skills and jobs to lift individuals out of low-paid, low-skilled work as a key area for improvement.

For Audit Wales, providing people from deprived backgrounds with opportunities to learn and develop is a core mission. “We regard it as part of our corporate citizenship,” says Ann-Marie Harkin, Executive Director of Audit Services. “Lots of our applicants are highly educated, middle class people, with degrees and perhaps post-grad qualifications. But if we employ individuals from only one type of background, we will lose our relevance.”

“Diversity of background plays directly into our effectiveness as a scrutineer of public sector spending,” Harkin explains. “If you look at our clients – such as local government bodies and the NHS – they all provide public services to Welsh citizens. So, people’s lived experiences of those services are relevant in that context. As our work is evidential, it’s greatly enhanced by employing staff with a broad range of perspectives.”

Network of inspiration

Since 2015, Audit Wales has run a Graduate Trainee Scheme with an annual intake of 12 to 14 individuals. Three years after that launched, the organisation opened its Finance Apprentice Scheme, which recruits around six apprentices per year.

Harkin says: “The Finance Committee of the Senedd provides us with a small amount of additional funding that would enable us to send our graduate trainees and apprentices on secondments to other public bodies. So, they are officially training with us – but they are able to spend six months with, say, NHS Wales, Gwent Police or a local council to acquire broader experience.”

Building on that, Audit Wales is now working on a new initiative with a more specific focus on social mobility. “Before the pandemic,” Harkin says, “we were in talks to launch a parallel programme in conjunction with the Social Mobility Business Partnership (SMBP): a volunteer-led charity that works with professional services firms to help students from low-income backgrounds pursue careers in law or finance.”

She notes: “SMBP approached us initially, in our capacity as a type of finance firm. With a nod to our graduate scheme, we suggested that the most fruitful way to proceed would be to build a collaborative programme in partnership with a variety of public sector bodies all across Wales. That network would provide participating students with exposure to the very sorts of organisations they may subsequently be inspired to join.”

Harkin notes: “When the pandemic struck, the scheme was delayed. However, I’m pleased to say that as COVID-19 has become more manageable, we have taken up the reins again and are set to launch our joint programme with our partners, such as SMBP and NHS Wales, this summer.”

Busting preconceptions

Much of the social mobility work that Audit Wales is undertaking is in collaboration with other public bodies in Wales. This joint working has led the participating bodies to develop a dedicated All Wales Public Sector Finance Apprenticeship scheme, aimed specifically at school leavers.

Launched in September 2021, the three-year scheme includes AAT studies up to Level 4 and includes at least one secondment with one of the other participating bodies. Importantly, it is supported by outreach work designed to inspire schoolchildren about the benefits of picking up public sector experience.

“One challenge we face on that front,” Harkin says, “is the preconception that if you work in the public sector, you’re either a nurse, refuse collector or a civil servant in a grey suit doing dull admin. So, it’s vital to encourage young people who are about to leave school to see that the Welsh public sector is in fact incredibly varied and dynamic, with ample scope for people from every walk of life to make valuable contributions and learn a lot.”

She notes: “Wales has the UK’s highest rate of child poverty, and high unemployment, too – both critical areas of policy focus for the Senedd. Given that the public sector is such a massive employer, it places a huge responsibility on organisations such as ourselves to alert people in areas of high unemployment to the opportunities available with us.”

In tandem, Harkin argues, it would be helpful for public sector employers to adjust their prerequisites. “Rather than pegging our employability benchmarks to certain grades in certain subjects,” she says, “it’s important to look at other factors such as aptitude, motivation and commitment. Not all of the ways those values are expressed can be quantified on paper.”

Raising the bar

Harkin is under no illusion as to what a big ask this approach may be for some senior figures. “It’s a massive cultural shift,” she acknowledges. “If you’re leading a public body that’s predominantly highly skilled, and you’re used to giving out minimal instructions and seeing them actioned very quickly, you may feel reluctant to hand a balance of your team to non-professionally qualified, young and perhaps inexperienced individuals.”

She notes: “You’re not just teaching them the ways of work. You’re helping them to grow and mature as people. And that hand-holding requires organisations to implement lots of internal changes.”

However, Harkin points out, Audit Wales has already garnered positive results from its initiatives. “In our assessment centre and at entry level,” she says, “we are gradually seeing more staff from different ethnic minority and socioeconomic backgrounds coming through. We currently have 66 people in some form of learning contract with our organisation, across a total of 270 staff. So, in proportional terms, we’re really committed to this path of opening up opportunities and raising the bar of people’s aspirations.”

She adds: “The next item on our to-do list is to join the Access Accountancy scheme, which aims to ensure that everyone has an equal chance of entering the profession based on merit, not background. We’re very much looking forward to making that connection.”

Social mobility and inclusion

As organisations struggle to attract the talent they need, there is a business need to widen the talent pool. At the same time, they recognise the need for diversity of thought in order to survive and thrive.

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