The Public Sector

Robust organizational cultures ensure that the people working within them retain a shared sense of their past achievements. With this in mind, and to help it draw lessons from the past that could be applied in the future, the Audit Commission of England and Wales authorized me in 2006 to write its official history, to mark the 25th anniversary of its inauguration in 1983.

Follow the money

This led eighteen months later to Follow the Money: The Audit Commission, Public Money and the Management of Public Services, 1983-2008, which was published in the UK in March 2008 by Penguin Allen Lane.

The Commission is charged with auditing the accounts of local government and a wide range of other bodies in the UK public sector falling outside the ambit of central government itself (which has its own separate watchdog, the National Audit Office). Its statutory brief includes a responsibility for "improving the economy, efficiency and effectiveness" of public services.

The Commission's members and executive directors gave their full support to the project, while leaving me with complete authorial independence. Their brief stipulated only two firm requirements. The book had to be written in a style that would appeal to the general reader. And it had to ensure that the story of the Commission was (as auditors might put it) presented fairly and in full accordance with the principles of historical objectivity.

I drew on interviews with scores of past and present employees to construct a narrative account of the story through twenty-five years. You can download a PDF version of the chapter in Follow the Money that describes the Hammersmith and Fulham swaps crisis of 1988-91, which is entitled Closing the Swap Shop.

From the press reviews

The Financial Times reviewed the book on March 31st 2008 ("Adventures of the Audit Commission", by Nicholas Timmins), describing it as "an authorised biography that reads in parts like a thriller". The reviewer, who is the newspaper's public policy editor, rated the book "a valuable and textured piece of analysis that anyone wanting to understand what has happened to British public services over the past 25 years will have to take into account". You can read the full review on the FT website.

The Guardian reviewed the book (anonymously) on April 2nd 2008, noting that "the prose zips along" while regretting that more pages were not devoted to the Hammersmith episode. "Readers will be amused by some sharp pen portraits and those familiar with the events and personalities will enjoy pitting their recollections against those of Campbell-Smith's witnesses.... So, cognoscenti, read and enjoy - especially Campbell-Smith's witty asides..." . (See also my own feature "Auditors are Unsung Heroes" in the Guardian of March 26th 2008.)

In the Times Literary Supplement of April 4th 2008, Simon Jenkins wrote: "Campbell-Smith was a reporter for The Economist, is in evident command of his subject and writes clearly and well about a topic that will, to many, seem impenetrable... The book undoubtedly opens a door on a corner of modern British government that had a central role in the Blair era."