Audit Office Promotes Public Sector Board Effectiveness with Publication of New Guide

Public sector boards will play a vital role in guiding Northern Ireland out of the COVID-19 pandemic and transforming our public services, but there is a need to bolster their independence and enhance partnership working between government departments and their arm’s length bodies. This was the message from Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly CB ahead of the launch of a new good practice guide on board effectiveness today (Wednesday 22 June 2022) at the Pavilion in the Stormont Estate.

The guide is being launched today at an event hosted by the Chief Executives’ Forum and Northern Ireland’s Public Sector Chair’s Forum.  Among those to address the delegation of senior public sector leaders were Jayne Brady (Head of the Civil Service), Sir David Sterling (Chair, Chief Executives’ Forum), Nicole Lappin (Chair of the Chair’s Forum, Chair of the NI Ambulance Service and Chief Commissioner of the NI Charity Commission), Grainia Long (Chief Executive of the NI Housing Executive), and Dr Denis McMahon (Permanent Secretary of The Executive Office).

Setting out the purpose of the new guide, Mr Donnelly said:

“The potential impact of effective boards cannot be emphasised enough as they are a key component in the successful operation of any organisation. This guide seeks to provide clear and concise advice to board chairs, board members and chief executives, helping them maximise their effectiveness in delivering fundamentally sound good governance and accountability.

As we emerge from a period of extensive remote working, the visibility of boards and collective leadership will be more important than ever.”

The new publication offers guidance, resources and case studies, covering building and recruiting for boards, managing operations and relationships, and evaluating performance. However, it places particular emphasis on partnership agreements between government departments and their Non-Departmental Public Bodies. These partnership agreements, introduced in April 2020, were intended to provide a structure for public bodies to work with proportionate autonomy by setting out a framework for governance, and by providing clarity on roles and responsibilities. However, Mr Donnelly observes that much work remains to be done:

“Notwithstanding the challenges of the pandemic, progress in implementing meaningful partnership agreements across the public sector here has been limited so far. It is vital that departments and their arm’s length bodies are mutually supportive and act with a common purpose.

“The clarity offered by partnership agreements will allow boards to be more empowered and efficient in leading and scrutinising how public services are delivered.”

Commenting on the guide, Jayne Brady stated:

“I welcome the publication of this guide by the Audit Office.  It is hugely important we have strong effective boards working collectively across the public sector to best support all of our work to deliver the best possible services for citizens.  The publication of the guide is timely alongside work I am undertaking at present to strengthen the independence, skills and diversity of the Board of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.”