Dig up the audit trail

Almost every useful feature of your brain begins by getting your attention and this in turn determines what you are conscious of, at any given moment. At this time of year in the life of an Academy, Academy Principals press for the hand of their trusted chief finance officer (CFO) (variously their business manager, or director of finance – the names are various and too many to mention). Some say it is the prelude to a conversation that happens all too infrequently and manifests the focussed attention of the person, which the poor CFO would like to have so much more often.
At the IAA Spring National Conference, when requested what attribute of funding and finance would most make a difference to the quality of their existence, the very large majority of CFOs present identified the focussed attention of their accounting officer (AO), their friend and boss, the academy principal.

Divided Attention
The EFA too has concerns and have concluded that the attention levels of the AO are on two levels. The first, brought about through the  ‘top down’ system of gaining their attention through formal letter writing in June, as a deliberate, focused attention seeking act which zooms into the attention span of the AO hopefully just long enough to remind them what they need to be thinking about and doing. This form of attention grabbing is useful in that it can elicit useful tasks, like taking the Dear Accounting Officer letter to Governors. It’s the form of task not fully requiring that much detailed concentration and in all probability commits little to long- term memory.
The second, still top down, is less full on and alarmingly not even directed fully at the poor unsuspecting AO. Unfortunately and predictably, the distractibility of a summer break, the impending reality of the summer’s GCSE and A level results, the start of the new Academy year and almost all possible AO attention to the matter of the end of one financial year and the start of another is lost. Of course this trait behaviour, of losing focus, whilst commendable in its judgement of priority in the core business of the enterprise that we call an Academy, is likely to be rudely interrupted by the bottom up system which is now about to get AO’s attention. The EFA Accounts Direction seeks the attention of their militia, auditors! It sets the agenda and frames the questions, it’s sort of like the syllabus for Academy funding and even gives guidance about the exacting and invasive questions which will frame the interrogation of the poor and underprepared Academy principal. Really, only one side of this conversation even knows the accounts direction exists.

Tuning in
The good news is that most AOs are able to tweak their attention settings so that they stay focussed just long enough to deal with the bottom up distraction of an impending interview with the auditors. Such an event is usually preceded with an email notification from the CFO asking for the AO’s availability. In the land of myth, after some number of reminders, the AO usually seeks counsel with their CFO, just long enough to arm themselves with answers to the possible auditors question. In the real world, the AO equipped with the rapier clarity earned from regular and purposeful dialogue with their audit and risk committee and armed with the enforcement of substantial professional dialogue throughout the full financial year with their CFO, sets off to the meeting with nay a care in the world.
The EFA’s work has shown that better control on top down attention comes, not by reducing inputs but by increasing them, a second dear AO letter and a new Academy Financial Handbook. This seems to work for both the avoidance of mind wandering and other distractions. Timed to perfection, after the first three to four barnstorming weeks of the new school year, the letter suggests turning our attention to the matter of connected party transactions and the skills and expertise of the governors. ‘Well said,’ resound the echoes of the AOs ‘at last someone gets what I have to grapple with the year long.’ The AO quickly placing a colourful border round the letter, parcels it off to their PA and then, in chain to their CFO, seeking their best advice on what should now most meaningfully be done?

The Preparation
The Institute of Education (IoE) and their researchers into the world of Academy funding and accountability have identified the AO and their boards as ritual and recidivist sufferers of attention deficit disorder. Insufficient and ill-defined controls and accountabilities they say. Now this really gets the attention of the AO and the organisations that represent them. If only these researchers more fully understood the onerous and highly regulated nature of their duties. There is never more than an Academy week goes by without a refreshing and reminding visit to the hallowed pages of the 153 page Academy Financial Handbook. What planet of ill focused consideration and false reality are these researchers on?
Now the Auditor has come prepared, fresh from an EFA briefing and 150 pages of EFA Accounts Direction, they recognise the jaunty carefree walk of an AO walking to their Waterloo. One is focussed and prepared, the other is not the auditor! The AO fears not, frantic and last minute preparations have been diligently undertaken. This kind of right brain training can be undertaken by even the most reluctant AO.
And it begins
Quietly, whilst they wait in trepidation, the CFO undertakes a few moments of meditation. They are overloaded with stimulation and with fear. This sort of AO preparation can overload their attention settings. They’re not built for this kind of stress; they have systems and schemes. Whilst they wait they cover their ears best not to hear the screams. Looking on through door panel windows, they notice, now diminishing rapidly, a distinct absence of jauntiness in the body language of their AO. If only they could have crammed more knowledge of regularity controls and schemes of delegation into those last few moments of preparation.
It all starts well, Of course, there are established roles, responsibilities and procedures’ and ‘Yes we have well established procedures for the confirmation and creation of suppliers.’ Frankly, the clue was in the question, you know, ‘Are there?’ Well they wouldn’t be asking if the answer in the affirmative wasn’t obvious. Now when it gets to the question about ‘Who?’, the AO also has no difficulty, they, ‘know exactly who has the authority to confirm and amend supplier details, including bank account and BAC transfer details.’ However, they are a bit stumped at the suggestion that ‘such authorisation, should it not, require multiple authorisers?’ And it’s all rock and roll from there, with full melt down at the question about audit trails and processes. It was all going so well! Now we are deep into the belly of delusion and guesswork.
The AO is so used to getting good test scores, bless them, they didn’t realise this wasn’t a cram and regurgitate, short and pain free viva. They glance through the curtain glass wall to their CFO, wishing they had only previously realised the value of this colleague. They promise now and make their sworn betrothal that all will forever be different. Not the momentary lapses of attention when challenged from above or from below. They have learned their lesson. The CFO is a friend and a qualified colleague indeed. ‘They know about this stuff and they are here to help me!’. They have a moment of rational and logical thought.

‘I need to know about this stuff and to learn what I’m supposed to be doing the full year round. Learning what to do and when to do it can be learned. It interests me, it’s a part of my role, I can do it and it will add value! I will commit my duties to memory and all will form part of my habits. I’m an AO damn it, not a trawler boat captain!!’  And then the momentary lapse of commitment and attention passes. Contrition and discomfort are forgotten.
It’s June again, another letter addressed ‘Dear Accounting Officer, ‘. Oh yes, I remember, top down attention seeking behaviour from that lot at the EFA again.’ The visit from the auditors is just around the corner. The difference, they have remembered the promises and panic from last year and they have come armed, with another accounts direction from the EFA! Have you read the new AFH? What key differences to practices and policy has it informed? Did your Governors skills and expertise audit have any impact? Did you remember to take the Dear Accounting Officer letter to Governors? Can we see the minutes?  The moment of panic and resignation approaches! Will I never learn?

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