A year ago this week the Audit Commission, the watchdog over council and health finances, came under new management. Andrew Foster took over the pounds 100,000-plus controller job at the commission which, he insists, "is not a government lapdog".
Headhunted from the number two slot in the health service, he surprised some and angered others by the move - Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, was reported to be furious - sidestepping the post he had been groomed for, chief executive of the NHS Management Executive.
Mr Foster, who commutes weekly from his family home - a listed brewery in the foothills of the Yorkshire moors - clearly relishes the switch, admitting: "This is one of the super roles in public services. You overseea couple of the most important publicly delivered services, you have a major opportunity to influence its practice at a local level, and you contribute to the national scene by trying to develop good quality, caring services, being tough if need be."
He sees the commission acting both as a steward for the sensible spending of public money ( pounds 83bn comes under his purview), and in a management development/consultancy role.
Commenting on his transfer from council social services directorships to health - specialisms frequently at daggers drawn with each other - he says he gets impatient with stereotyping and infighting from services with, admittedly, very different cultures. He urges them to make common cause in the fight to make public services better, an objective which has driven his career from local government, health and Whitehall, where he saw all points of view. What the two services have in common is that "there are stacks of committed, hard-working, dedicated people trying to prvide good services". When things go wrong he tries to keep this in the forefront of his mind.
The catalyst for his leap from councils to health was a Cabinet Office top management programme while he was social services director at North Yorkshire County Council in 1986. Mingling with future mandarins and captains of industry ("excellent, it broadened my perspective: it felt like watching Newsnight intensively for a month"), convinced him he had transferable general management skills.
His arrival at the commission brings a change of style and a commitment to human resource issues such as better opportunities for women and ethnic minorities. Noel Hepworth, director of Cipfa, the accountancy body responsible for the financial management of many public bodies, says: "It is a welcome change. His predecessors, John Banham and Howard Davies, were very much singular people, whereas Andrew Foster is much more of a consensus man. He is beginning to give collegiate leadership which they did not have.He has more of a public sector, rather than an entrepreneurial style." Mr Hepworth, along with lawyers in the Society of County Secretaries, welcomes a defusion of tensions that built up after controversial legal rulings by the commission, some of which have resulted in costly court action (the interest rate swap case at Hammersmith and Fulham council being the most famous).
The commission, in its tenth year, has brought out, after wide consultation - initiated by Mr Foster - a five-year strategic review. Among the changes ahead: the local district audit service is to become an agency; there is to be more emphasis on probity/fraud prevention work, to meet the challenge of greater opportunities for corruption that devolution and fragmentation brings; there will be greater stress on economy and efficiency in new studies; the new role of Citizen's Charter monitor is to be developed. In addition, the commission is practising what it preaches by publishing information about its own performance and gettingexternal evaluation of its work. …