Headlines: November 15th, 1999

A radical shift in public service culture has been signalled by the National Audit Office. The Modernising government White paper published in March 1999 described the aspiration of ministers that the deeply embedded risk averse culture would give way to a more innovative approach, but this is the first indication that change is actually on the way.The NAO has given a commitment that it will support well thought through risk taking and experimentation. Although the statement relates to research establishments and the commercial exploitation their activities, the move is a strong signal to central government organisations that carefully evaluated risk is OK. The NAO also makes it clear that this line is also being taken by the Public Audit Forum which represents audit and inspection bodies throughout the UK.

The guidelines that all audit and inspection bodies will adopt include assessing the quality of risk management systems and deciding if risks and potential benefits have been properly considered. Despite the guidelines auditors will have a difficult course to follow supporting and encouraging change, while at the same time providing independent scrutiny and assurance and fulfilling their statutory and professional responsibilities.

Managers across the public sector will now be closely watching their auditing and inspecting bodies to see how they respond to risk taking that fails to deliver results.