The head of the public spending watchdog that has probed billions of pounds worth of public sector IT schemes is to retire.
Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, will leave at the end of January next year after 20 years in the post. He is stepping down because of a legal change arising from the 2006 Companies Act that will put his NAO role – where he is formally known as Comptroller and Auditor General – in conflict with his position as chair of the Professional Oversight Board of the Financial Reporting Council.
Provisions in the act that come into force in April will put auditors general under the supervision of the oversight board in respect of their work with public limited companies.
Sir John Bourn said today: “Under these new arrangements it would be incompatible for me to hold the positions of both C&AG and chairman of the board.” He will retain his position as chair of the oversight board.
The audit chief said his term in office had seen “a profound change in the way government works and the role and influence of public sector auditors”. Highlights of his time at the NAO included “securing comprehensive access rights to audit public money, for example in securing access to private sector suppliers to government”, he said.
Under Bourn’s leadership, the NAO has produced a series of reports on public sector IT projects, most notably probing the fiascos surrounding HM Revenue and Customs’ tax credits computer system, the Child Support Agency and the Rural Payments Agency’s single payment scheme.
The NAO reports have prompted a series of critical inquiries by the Commons Public Accounts Committee. Edward Leigh MP, the committee’s chair, said the public audit function was “now stronger and more robust than ever”.
But the NAO has also produced a report – with 24 case studies – of successful public sector IT programmes. It emphasised the importance of engaging senior executives in support of projects, acting as “intelligent clients” and understanding the business process the organisation is attempting to change through technology.
The auditors’ role has also been challenged because of the importance attached to its findings on schemes such as the NHS’s National Programme for IT (NPfIT).
Richard Granger, outgoing head of Connecting for Health, which runs NPfIT, has claimed that the £12.4bn price tag now attached to the huge computer scheme was a figure he agreed to under “significant pressure” from the NAO. He had been “singled out for special treatment”, by the watchdog he claimed.
But MPs on the public accounts committee have also been sceptical about the “almost universally positive tone” of an NAO report on NPfIT. Greg Clark called the report “easily the most gushing” he had seen.
Earlier this month, it emerged that Sir John had been entertained at the expense of IT services firm EDS, which is a supplier to the UK public sector, among others. An NAO spokesperson said the audit chief met and discussed with suppliers as part of producing “a balanced audit”, speaking to all those involved in major public sector contracts.