Yes, today is the day that the Whole of Government Accounts for 2014-15 have been published. And, although it may be easy to criticise the 14 months it has taken since the end of the financial year to publish them, their publication is further evidence of the (quiet) revolution going on in the staid world of government accounting.
These accounts are the sixth set of financial statements published by the Government in this format, using International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), in line with the commercial accounting rules applied to listed companies and many other organisations.
Fourteen months is actually still an improvement over the 15 months it took two years ago when the 2012-13 financial statements were published, but it is a reversal from the twelve months it took last year and is disappointing given the Government’s ambition to reduce the time taken to nine months this time around.
The primary cause of the delays stems from problems in the preparation of the accounts for one of the Government’s major ‘subsidiaries’, namely the Department for Education. It has struggled to cope with the transfer of thousands of local authority schools from to academy chains under the control of central government, causing a knock-on impact on the overall financial reporting programme.
Despite that there have been improvements, with Network Rail now incorporated and further improvements in the quality of the accounts. And, perhaps just as importantly, the Government has started to realise that it needs to do a lot more if it is cope with the financial implications of devolution.
Unfortunately, there has been a small step backward in terms of the commentary provided on the financial statements. It has been streamlined (something I generally welcome as a matter of principle), but in doing so I think the commentary has lost some of the analysis that would be expected in a listed company’s annual report and so makes it a slightly less useful document than it could be. However, I am sufficiently realistic to accept that there is limited usefulness in a detailed comprehensive financial commentary relating to a period that ended over a year ago.
That demonstrates the reason why it is important for the dedicated team at the Treasury working on the WGA to work with departments such as Education in order to return to the path of more timely reporting. It will only when the Whole of Government Accounts are published within a reasonable time after the end of the financial year that they will be able to come into their own as a vehicle for holding the Government to account for the management of the nation’s finances and to support more effective decision making.
Now to actually read them… mmm… I think the £1.5 trillion in pension liabilities might be worthy of a little further follow up….