Tag Archives: torfaen county borough council

Accounting against the Clock

Faster Closure of accounts in Wales – are we all up for the challenge?


The Good Practice Exchange will shortly be holding two Faster Closing seminars in Cardiff and North Wales. John Herniman from our Senior Leadership Team shares his views on Faster Closing and what it means for Wales.

We’ve heard a lot in recent months about the faster closing of accounts. In England, both Oldham and Westminster Councils beat their previous records for closing their accounts, doing so by the end of May. Closer to home, Torfaen County Borough Council closed its 2014/15 accounts in record time, 10 weeks ahead of the deadline. There is also the continued pressure to speed up the publication of the annual Whole of Government Accounts into which Local Government bodies accounts are consolidated.

As we all know, the current deadlines for the production and audit of Local Government bodies’ accounts are 30 June and 30 September respectively. The Welsh Government has recently consulted on bringing these dates forward to 31 May and 31 July over the next few years. Whilst the earlier deadlines may seem like a distant challenge not to be concerned about just yet, the scale of the changes required for practitioners and auditors alike means that planning needs to start now.

What are the benefits?

As daunting as it might seem, we know that there are many benefits of faster closure. These include, but are not limited to, improving the timeliness of reporting to stakeholders and having earlier assurance over the previous year’s position before embarking on major financial decisions for the future. The private sector and other parts of the public sector all close their accounts earlier so the question for me is ‘Where do we start?’

Faster Closure in Wales

Our Good Practice Exchange seminars in October and November will give us insight into how particular organisations started their journey. These seminars are not going to be focused on detailed processes but rather the organisational and cultural changes needed to start the journey. Further seminars and workshops will be held over the coming years exploring the more detailed aspects of faster closing.

The organisations involved will share with us their approaches and most importantly, the lessons learnt from achieving earlier closure of accounts. For me personally, hearing about the challenges that they faced at the early stages and how they overcame them will be of particular interest

A new challenge

There is no doubt that the faster closing agenda will bring major challenges for both practitioners and auditors as we work together to develop and learn from new ways of working. I remember the last time the closure dates were brought forward, from the end of December to September. Back then that sounded impossible but it quickly became the norm with the tighter deadlines being achieved.

Faster closure is a learning curve for all of us; insights from Torfaen, Oldham, Kent and Westminster will provide us all with a chance to be working from the same page so that we have a good starting point as we embark on their faster closing journey.

Wisdom Bank

What is the Wisdom Bank and how can an online tool help the people of Torfaen to develop better relationships with each other and public services? Matt Basham of Torfaen County Borough Council tells us more.

Torfaen Wisdom Bank

People know useful stuff.

It’s as true as it is simple.

Everybody has a library of tips, advice, information, let’s call it “Wisdom”, that they carry around in their heads. When we start looking at our local communities in their entirety, and then multiply these information resources by all the people who live there, we are dealing with something really significant and valuable. As someone who works for a local authority, I should have at my fingertips an enormous library of wisdom, which resides within the local residents, communities and businesses. If I could only unlock these resources, I could access information and advice that could deliver huge benefits to society. I could offer support to the vulnerable, advice to the needy, intelligence to local business, help to those who need it most, from a source they trust and respect.

However, society is changing. Modern life is hectic, and we don’t always have time to chat with the people around us. We don’t meet our neighbours as regularly as we once did. We don’t always bump into our friends in the village hall, our community centre, or even our local pub. All too often, we don’t even know our neighbours names.

We’d expect, in this interconnected age, that it would be increasingly easy to share useful, local information online instead. But the reverse seems to be true. There are a number of significant barriers that stop the flow of information between residents, organisations and businesses:

  • The huge size and global nature of the internet makes it increasingly difficult to find information relevant and resonant to our own experience. We are swamped by too much information
  • Potential contributors are frozen out by fear of trolling and cyber bullying. How many informative and helpful videos have you seen posted on YouTube that are greeted by sarcasm, insults and vitriol?
  • The established social media brands are flippant, celebrity obsessed and distant.

Information Sharing on the Wisdom BankIt was with this situation in mind that the Wisdom Bank came about. It seeks to create a local environment, where resources can be created by the community, for the community.

A rigorous safety strategy puts reporting power in the hands of the user. Any reported content, right down to an individual forum response, is immediately suspended pending moderation. This means the cyber bullies and trolls can be weeded out locally. We don’t need to await a policy response from a distant web executive based in Silicon Valley, we can take action locally and immediately.

A new web brand, and intuitive site design encourages community involvement. The Wisdom Bank aims to become recognised as a destination for quality information.

Over time we want the site to work just like a bank, with people ‘depositing’ the knowledge they have to share and ‘withdrawing’ information when they need advice. These knowledge resources aren’t just helpful, they are enormously valuable. They help keep people happy, healthy and secure. They help people find work, cope with stress, or with tough situations. They help local businesses to trade and flourish. So how do we create and maintain useful social connections in the modern world? We have seen the potential of the internet to connect, to bring people together. But to date, no-one as developed something that works in a local context, to provide quality information.

So this is why we need the Wisdom Bank – to create a local online environment, where people are empowered to share their knowledge. In order for our local residents and businesses to engage with the Wisdom Bank, we must build an environment that is fit for their needs.

We worked hard to make the site as safe as we can, and developed a rigorous safety strategy.

We made the Wisdom Bank highly functional, and have developed a site that is clear and easy to use.

Most of all, we made the site welcoming, and have empowered the community to post films and web pages to share their knowledge. We believe that our residents and businesses have important knowledge to share, and we are giving them the tools to achieve this.

As well as posting films and pages, the Wisdom Bank also creates new online networks, based on common interests instead of pre-existing friendships. We give users a variety of communication tools, so they can interact, engage and support each other.

Ultimately, the quality and power of the Wisdom Bank will depend on how our communities engage, and how much they choose to contribute.

As an organisation Torfaen County Borough Council have a strong belief that our residents with respond positively, and create a special and unique resource for the benefit of all.

Visit www.wisdombank.org.uk to explore the potential of this new approach to social media.

March Madness session review

GovCamp Cymru

In this post Helia Phoenix from the National Assembly for Wales looks back over the ‘March Madness’ session at GovCamp Cymru. This session was run by Jo Carter from the Satori Lab, who has also blogged about the topic.

If you work in a busy, high-tempo team like I do, you’re often very busy ‘doing the job’. Budgeting for the year ahead should be one of the main focuses of your work, and you should revisit that plan throughout the year, making amendments to it as you go along. But some people don’t manage it as well as they might be able to. The session was attended by individuals from local authorities and housing associations, and we discussed how money is extremely tight in the public sector at the moment, so it’s more important than ever to be pragmatic with your budgeting. The group shared some good practice examples of how you could manage your budget.

Helia Phoenix at GovCamp Cymru / Helia Phoenix yn GovCamp Cymru

Photo by Sasha Taylor, available at http://bit.ly/1sFVNQ4 / Llun gan Sasha Taylor, ar gael o http://bit.ly/1sFVNQ4

There were two great examples that I came away with; one very simple, that anyone could achieve in their own team, and one a lot more elaborate that would require the support of your senior management.

1 – the simple solution. This came from Torfaen Council. Throughout the course of the year, this team operate by spending on business critical things, but they’ll also make a list of things they’d do if they come in with any cash at the end of the year (so upgrading their technology, perhaps buying new software, etc). Then, in February, if they find themselves with an underspend, they can use the money in that way. So they still fit into the ‘March Madness’ spending pattern, but they do it in a structured way that ensures they are using their money in the best way they can.

2 – the complex solution. Monmouthshire Council has a central pot of money that is used as an innovation fund. Departments that manage to save money and have an underspend at the end of the year put the money into that pot. Half is used for paying off debts, but the other half is made available for departments to pitch for. They put in ideas of projects that they wanted to run, and senior management would decide how the money was given out for those projects. This rewarded departments for good financial management, and also permitted them some freedom to try different ways of delivering their services that they might not otherwise have been able to try.


Helia Phoenix at GovCamp Cymru / Helia Phoenix at GovCamp Cymru

Photo by Sasha Taylor, available at http://bit.ly/1om3AUS / Llun gan Sasha Taylor, ar gael o http://bit.ly/1om3AUS

You might not be likely to persuade anyone in your organisation to do Solution 2, but Solution 1 is a really easy way of structuring spending so money is being used in the best possible way, and it’s really very easy to do. Anyone can do it.

– Helia

Personal use of social media

Social Media

Before starting my role here at the Wales Audit Office’s Good Practice Exchange, I’d always kept work related tweets separate from my personal account.

I always felt uneasy that I may bring shame upon my work colleagues by tweeting something inappropriate. But when I was fortunate enough to get this job, I realised that I faced losing a few contacts because this project didn’t have a Twitter account at the time (but does now). I decided to take the plunge and mix business with pleasure.

When I worked at WCVA I admired how my colleague Michelle Matheron managed to do what I’m just getting my head around now, by tweeting about the implications of Welsh politics for the third sector and (in her words) “girlie nonsense”. But the girlie nonsense she tweets gives a great context to her work. Working around politics isn’t just a job for Michelle, by following her it becomes clear that it’s an interest and a passion. The authenticity of her tweets adds weight to what she says, and also reminds you that you can engage with her directly.

At this point I still wasn’t entirely sure that I could be personal in a professional context and vice-versa, but since taking that step I’m very glad that I have. Having never previously worked around auditing, I’ve got a lot to learn. Twitter’s given me the chance to learn more about what Wales Audit Office staff do, and also get to know them as individuals. There are lots of great people worth following, but just for two examples it’s been great following Huw Lloyd-Jones, who’s been great at highlighting good practice in tweeting from local government in North Wales, and Mike Palmer, whose passion for sustainable development really shines through from his tweets.

Social media also gives people the opportunity to develop relationships with others, which poses some quite exciting possibilities for how public services relate to people.

By being on these platforms personally, we’re better equipped to know what effective tweeting looks like. The great thing is that there are lots of public services who are already using social media in this way, who are both personable and helpful. Organisations like Torfaen County Borough Council are interacting quickly, efficiently and in the medium of the person’s choice (in this case Twitter).

It’s become clear that organisations can’t continue to work the same way they did before social media. It’s clear that the way people access information from us is changing, as is the way we communicate. This great blog post from Comms 2.0 outlines why we need to change – because people want to hear from us in a language they can understand and relate to, in a personal way, where public services are people too.

Using social media personally is a great way to get to grips with what’s expected of an organisation. But more than that, by being on there as individuals, we’re also letting people know how our organisations work and how we reach the decisions we make and why we do what we do. As Tim Lloyd says in a great blog post for the Department for Business and Skills, “a face and a name, and a deep knowledge of a specific policy area, is far more appealing to our audiences than anonymous statements from a corporate account”. Whether this is true for everyone I’m not sure, but I can certainly say that personally I follow far more people than organisations.