How can faster closure of local government accounts improve public services? Ena Lloyd examines what we can learn from English Local Authorities.
Currently, Local Government Accounts have to be signed off by 30 September in Wales. The Treasury in Whitehall would like to enable the Whole of Government Accounts to be made available by that date, and so there is every likelihood that the sign off date is going to move forward to 30 July in a few years’ time.
I’ve been chatting to a number of Local Authorities across England where they have already brought the date forward of Faster Closure of Local Government accounts, to hear their thoughts on their approaches. There seem to be three themes emerging from the discussions:
The reality is, technology has evolved, and by now it’s reasonable to expect that most financial processes are automated. So, at worst, ‘ faster closure’ can be seen as an opportunity to review current financial systems. Supporting financial teams to work smarter, not harder. Also it’s a great opportunity to pause and reflect to think about building in resilience into the process too.
The Band Aid Approach
The opening thoughts seemed to have a clear theme: there is no hiding from the fact that change is tough. Especially, when financial colleagues have been used to the same processes and worked to the same timescales for a number of years. It’s understandable. I can hear the argument that, if it’s not broken…………..
The idea of change was worse than the reality. That may sound rather a glib comment to make. Many reflected on the fact many financial colleagues spent more than half of their working year on ‘closing down the accounts’. The impact of this on colleagues left them feeling as if they were working in the past and in a kind of bubble too.
The benefit of ‘faster closure’ for financial staff is that they spend far less time focusing on the past, and, given that I work for the Wales Audit Office, I say the next bit with a smile on my face, the external audit is over much quicker. The relationship with the external auditor has changed in that they are involved much more in year, sharing their thinking and potential changes. Adopting a ‘no surprises approach’.
Probably the biggest benefit of ‘faster closure’ is the improved service financial colleagues now provide front line services. They are able to devote far more time to budget setting and monitoring. More importantly, by engaging at a much earlier stage with Service Managers about what management information they need to run their service, can only be of benefit to public services.
And isn’t that what it’s all about at the end of the day?