During a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic many organisations will have responded in ways that are novel or innovative. It is not ‘business as usual’. Some of these practices will be useful to share widely as quickly as possible and some might be useful to continue after the pandemic is over. Audit Wales has developed an approach to rapidly gather and share information that sits alongside our aspiration to make audit more ‘real time’ and inspire improvement in public services.
- During a crisis people will do things they have never done before, including new and innovative practices
- Gathering and sharing this practice in real-time can help other people to quickly learn, improve what they are doing and manage risks
- Auditors have the skills and experience to observe, analyse and draw out important insights that can help people during rapidly changing and complex situations
Public sector audit is sometimes criticised for being too focused on compliance and not helping bodies learn from good practice they have seen elsewhere.
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity for Audit Wales to develop an approach that is focused on gathering information, drawing out insights and sharing them with public bodies we audit. The COVID Learning Project draws upon the skills of our auditors to act impartially, observe carefully and provide insights on what is happening across Wales.
Playing our part in Team Wales
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic the Auditor General for Wales wrote the Chief Executives of audited bodies to say that we were suspending our planned value for money and performance audit programmes. This was to enable the audit bodies to fully focus upon the important job of responding to the pandemic.
The staff of Audit Wales did however want to continue to play their part in the ‘Team Wales’ effort and support the response of public services. One of the things we recognised we could do was help to share learning. Building upon work we have done as part of our Good Practice Exchange, we wanted to answer the question, ‘What are the new and innovative things happening that could help people respond better to the pandemic?’
We recognised that many of the people involved in the delivery of services were under extreme pressure. They didn’t have time to stand back and reflect on what they had done differently. Time to draw out learning points and share this with others was not available to them. This was a role that could, however, be carried out by someone as a ‘trusted observer’. This is where we thought that Audit Wales staff were perfectly placed to do this.
Moving from retrospective audit to sharing real-time learning
Part of moving towards this approach required agreements with and the cooperation of the bodies we audit. It also required new processes to gather and share information, along with a shift in working practices.
In the creation of new processes, we have used an agile approach where we rapidly developed and tested and learnt through the process of ‘doing’. One of the key learning points for us has been to accept that ‘good enough is good enough’ rather than delaying things to achieve perfection. This is necessary to keep things moving at pace, but it can sometimes challenge long established behaviours.
This learning point also applies to how we have approached knowledge we are gathering and sharing. We have been clear that we are not conducting an audit of fully reviewed and evidenced practice. We are looking for the new and innovative approaches which may not have been seen previously. The emphasis is on sharing openly and rapidly, without judgement. Overcoming our auditor instincts to check and qualify and focus on learning has been a challenge.
Sharing the insights
The feedback we received while we were developing the approach has told us that in the current situation people are processing information and using information differently. Small fragments and facts are more useful to people than having to read through a lengthy document. By providing information in this way, they are able to form their own conclusions about what would work in their context.
The result has been that we are using Twitter to share information alongside slightly longer web articles and blogs to explore insights and deeper learning. This is a departure from a traditional approach of producing substantial audit reports.
Work in progress
We are still refining what we do with the COVID-19 Learning Project. Responding to feedback from the audited bodies about the process and the areas of learning we are focusing on teaches us a lot. And we would be happy to learn about your insights and experiences.
|Chris Bolton works at Audit Wales as the Manager of the Good Practice Exchange Team. They focus on sharing learning from audit work with public bodies across Wales. Chris has been involved in regulation, audit and improvement work for over 25 years, in a career which spans the environmental regulation sector and public sector audit.|
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