South West Audit Partnership (SWAP)
Objective: Performance review, data and analysis
David Hill, SWAP Chief Executive
David Hill, Chief Executive of the South West Audit Partnership (SWAP), highlighted the key points of his report. The SWAP was an internal audit company operating mainly in the government sector, including large councils like Liverpool City and Kent County, although they worked with charitable bodies too. The partnership was first created in 2005 and had since grown to 26 official partners. It operated as a not for profit partnership, so any surplus made in the year went into its reserves. In terms of governance, the owner’s board set the strategy, and all the partners were represented on the board of directors, including Darren Knight as the CBC representative.
He emphasised the SWAP’s 100% partner retention, which he hoped said something about the work they did. They took professional engagement seriously, and were considered a top performer in the sector in terms of innovation and investment in new technology. The partnership regularly turned in a surplus, expected to be around £950k this year, so financial performance was good. The only issue was their pension liability, as with all public sector bodies, but they were in the fortunate position that when the Somerset unitary authority formed next year, the large majority of the SWAP’s pension deficit would be swallowed back in and come off the balance sheet.
He highlighted the topic of innovation, noting that they had produced a one page report which had been picked up both nationally and globally, and that they were investing significantly in new technologies. This included data visualisation, i.e. how their work linked to the council’s core objectives and strategic risks. It was important to audit the right things at the right time. They were also moving into other new technologies, like NLP and AI. The internal audit world was changing, and so were its budgets – in the past, around 95% of costs went on staff, and now it was more like 75%. The new Audit Management System was being implemented and would hopefully be live in the next month or two.
The Chair thanked the officers for their report, and moved into Member questions and debate:
- One Member noted that in their role on Audit and Governance Committee (to which the SWAP regularly reported) they had seen the value they brought to the governance of Cheltenham. Another Member who sat on this committee agreed.
- One Member asked about the issues faced both in terms of attracting and retaining qualified staff, and what they were doing with apprenticeships and academia to ensure there was a pipeline of staff coming in. The SWAP Chief Executive responded that they sought to develop the team in-house wherever possible, and had made 58 internal promotions in the last 18 months. Their focus on innovation was a key factor in staff retention, as it made them more attractive in a marketplace that often lacked it. Some turnover was to be expected, and they were not finding retention to be a major issue. On the pipeline question, they had two apprenticeships currently running, and worked closely with professional bodies.
- One Member asked what the SWAP’s main strategic focus was. The SWAP Chief Executive responded that their primary role was to ensure good governance, and make sure that authorities fulfilled their statutory obligations. They had moved from static plans to six monthly rolling plans so they could more effectively adapt to dynamic risks in all areas.
- One Member asked how the SWAP was likely to expand in the future in order to keep their competitive advantage. The SWAP Chief Executive responded that their mantra was to deliver more with less, and they were continuously improving on this. The future might well be based around partnerships and shared learning, and the charity sector and NHS would be key partners. The private sector was off the table since they were a not for profit company.
- One Member praised the presentation of data, and asked how they kept up with wider trends when comparing and contrasting data sets from very different sources. The SWAP Chief Executive responded that every council had a different system, and while data quality varied a lot it was generally not as good as it should be. They aimed to ensure good data governance and that data was accurate and well looked after. Machine learning allowed them to automate a lot of processes, and a key goal for the future was to make good use of new technology.
- One Member asked whether there was any specific feedback for CBC on a data governance level. The SWAP Chief Executive did not have any specific feedback for Cheltenham, but stressed that they worked closely with all partner authorities to try to ensure collaboration. Independence did not have to mean isolation – they could be objective and provide advice without losing their independence.
- One Member asked how they developed the skills needed to work in complex and fast-moving fields like cyber security. The SWAP Chief Executive responded that the professional network was invaluable to this, and they had lots of key contacts in the public and private sectors.
The Chair thanked the SWAP Chief Executive and Assistant Director for attending, and for the valuable work they did.