Backstory: The Audit Commission – Part I

Interestingly, as I’m thinking about what you say and what you don’t and considering how to flesh out the story of me online, this weekend it was announced that the Audit Commission is to be abolished.

The Audit Commission was a big part of my working life. Did you know that? Probably not, there might be fleeting references to it, but to an extent, when I left in 2002 I drew a line under it as an experience and moved on. So as an interesting exercise in backstory writing (ie creating panels before the first panel – and of course a gutter between) what did I do there?

I arrived at the Commission’s Vincent Square headquarters on 1 August 1994. It was coincidentally the day that Commission staff were all moving back into VSQ after refurbishment, so it was a more laid back introduction than I’d expected and everyone else had a little air of being new themselves. I was there as a placement student for a year as part of my degree in Computing & IT at Surrey University.

My role as a student was to provide data analysis support to study teams in the directorate of Local Government Studies. I found myself allocated to a number of studies, but primarily a team just starting to look at the education of children under five. In the course of the year I got more and more excited by the prospect of understanding public services by collecting data and going out and talking to people.

The classic commission study contained a comprehensive and thorough narrative exploring the area of interest coupled with facts and analyses to support the argument. In addition there was usually an audit tool of some sort which would allow local auditors to carry out a value for money audit in the services affected.

So much of my time was spent following the study team around, carrying bags and getting to understand what they were doing and seeing where I could spot things that could be measured and interesting stories that might be told based on thbe data. It wasn’t up to me to come up with the stories, more to spot interesting avenues of investigation and then, if the study team agreed then to look further.

A running joke was that study teams always found there to be “significant variation between councils’ performance in X” for a number of Xs. Spotting variation was only the beginning. Explaining why variation occurred and what managers could do to improve their performance was much more important.

Not much was expected of us as students, but I loved bringing large sets of data together and seeing what you could tell from it. So I set about recording all of the data we were collecting, right down to attendance patterns in nursery schools into one big database that I could play around with.

The key output of this was a spreadsheet that allowed an auditor to compare the data they collected in an individual educational setting, or across a local authority, with national averages. My innovation was to present this data in the form of a “cost tree” for cost per child per hour.

A figure for cost per anything is usually one big number divided by some other big number, so in this case the total cost of provision divided by the number of child hours provided. Now this might vary for a wide range of reasons but by laying out the factors that go to make up the costs and those that might vary in the calculation of the total number of child hours (a policy decision, for example, to limit the number of hours 3-year-olds might get) it was much easier to see where differences arose.

It was very simple in the end but effective. It gave people something to think about, something to discuss and help them put a local picture into a national context. As well as helping the study team understand the dynamics of costs and differences between the costs of types of setting, it would help auditors to show councils where they might make improvements.

I went back to university for my final year, but was very pleased when the people in the study team lobbied for me to be recruited following graduation. But that’s a story for another day.

OK – what does this tell you about me? How does it help explain what happens next? Does it explain anything at all? Or is the gulf between this and what you know of me today too wide for you to suspend your disbelief that they’re the same people (*I* struggle..!). Do you want to give up, or carry on? Have I jumped too far from yesterdays post for you to understand what I’m trying to do here?

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