Meeting date: Thursday, September 24, 2020
Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee 24 September 2020
Agenda: Interests, Decision on Taking Business in Private, Section 22 Report
Section 22 Report
“The 2018/19 audit of Bòrd na Gàidhlig: Governance and transparency”
Agenda item 3 is a section 22 report on the 2018-19 audit of Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
I welcome our witnesses from Bòrd na Gàidhlig: Shona MacLennan, chief executive; Mary MacInnes, chair; and Dr Stewart MacLeod, chair of the audit and assurance committee; and our witnesses from the Scottish Government: Paul Johnston, director general, education, communities and justice; and Douglas Ansdell, head of Gaelic and Scots team.
I understand that Shona MacLennan, Mary MacInnes and Paul Johnston wish to make opening statements. Before I invite them to do so, I want to make a few comments.
The Scottish Parliament is committed to facilitating the use of the Gaelic language in its proceedings wherever possible. Shona MacLennan and Mary MacInnes wanted to speak in Gaelic in this evidence session, and we were making arrangements for that to happen in April, when the session was originally due to place. As you know, the session was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and we are now working in very different circumstances. I am grateful to Bòrd na Gàidhlig for working with the Parliament’s staff to explore different options to enable the use of Gaelic during this session. I understand that both Shona MacLennan and Mary MacInnes will be making their opening statements in Gaelic, which is welcome. The Parliament is arranging for the Official Report of this meeting to be translated into Gaelic so that it will be accessible to all those in the Gaelic community.
I invite Mary MacInnes to make her statement in Gaelic, and then in English.
Mary MacInnes (Bòrd na Gàidhlig)
Tapadh leibh. Madainn mhath, a neach-gairm, a bhuill na comataidh agus a chuideachd air fad a tha an làthair an seo an-diugh. ’S e urram agus dùbhlan a th’ ann a bhith an-diugh a’ bruidhinn às leth Bòrd na Gàidhlig. Is mise Màiri NicAonghais. Is mi cathraiche a’ bhùird. Is mi an seachdamh cathraiche a tha air a bhith air Bòrd na Gàidhlig bhon a chaidh a stèidheachadh còrr is 14 bliadhna deug air ais.
Còmhla rium tha ceannard a’ bhuidhinn Shona NicIllInnein. Is ise an t-ochdamh ceannard a tha air a bhith anns an dreuchd aig a’ bhòrd bhon a chaidh a stèidheachadh aig an àm sin. Cuideachd an làthair air-loidhne tha Stewart Macleòid a tha na chathraiche air comataidh aig Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
’S e buidheann poblach le dleastanasan mòra ach sgioba beag a th’ anns a’ bhòrd. Tha 400 bliadhna de dh’eachdraidh air cùlaibh leasachadh na Gàidhlig. Fad iomadach bliadhna cha robh riaghailtean idir coibhneil agus chaidh iomadach cron a dhèanamh air a’ chànan. Ach tha sinn fortanach an-diugh gu bheil Achd na Gàidhlig (Alba) 2005 ann agus gu bheil am bòrd a’ cur air adhart leasachadh. ’S mar sin tha uallaichean mòra mòra air Bòrd na Gàidhlig. Tha an sgioba beag agus mar as motha a tha an obair a’ dol air adhart, ’s ann as motha agus as treasa a tha an obair a’ fàs.
Thairis air na beagan bhliadhnaichean a chaidh seachad, a’ tòiseachadh ann an 2018, thuig am bòrd gun robh atharrachadh a dhìth taobh a-staigh a’ bhùird fhèin agus tarsaing na h-obrach aige air fad. A-mach às an tuigse agus na còmhraidhean a bha sin, thàinig rannsachadh domhainn aig toiseach na bliadhna 2019.
A-mach às an rannsachadh sin, thàinig plana gnìomh agus ’s e sin am plana gnìomh air a bheil sinne aig a’ bhòrd air a bhith ag obrachadh airson leasachadh cudromach agus tomadach is mòr a thoirt air a’ bhuidheann.
Tha mise toilichte a bhith an seo an-diugh a’ toirt fianais air an obair mhath is an obair chruaidh a tha air a bhith a’ tachairt san ochd mìos deug a chaidh seachad.
Mary MacInnes continued in English.
I am the chair of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, and I am the seventh chair or interim chair of the board since it was established more than 14 years ago. With me is Shona MacLennan, the ceannard or chief executive officer, and joining us online is Dr Stewart Macleod, who is the chair of our audit committee.
It is both an honour and a challenge to be here today, but I am delighted to have this opportunity to be present and give evidence in real time. Bòrd na Gàidhlig is a public body with significant responsibilities and a very small team. The Gaelic language suffered 400 years of poor legislation and poor support, and we are still addressing that history as we try to develop the language through the work that we do.
Bòrd na Gàidhlig is the first statutory body with that responsibility, so it is no small task that we have set ourselves. The aims and expectations are significant and ever increasing. With more development, more opportunities and more successes, expectations are raised within our organisation and among the wider Scottish and worldwide Gaelic community.
It became apparent to us at Bòrd na Gàidhlig that the organisation needed to change, and the board itself recognised that. Our CEO, Shona MacLennan, played a particularly important role in taking those steps. Late in 2018, we set about examining how we wanted to create a culture of change and evaluation. We had a wider-scope audit undertaken in January 2019, out of which came a comprehensive improvement plan to develop the organisation. We worked with the improvement plan over and above the operational plan to which we work anyway. I am pleased to say that that culture of change has been well developed. At our recent audit visit, significant improvement was noted, and I am grateful for that.
I now ask my CEO to furnish you with more information and details on that.
I hand over to Shona MacLennan, who will make an opening statement in Gaelic, and then in English.
Shona MacLennan (Bòrd na Gàidhlig)
Madainn mhath. Is mise Shona NicIllinnein agus is mi ceannard Bòrd na Gàidhlig. ’S e aithisg dhùbhlanach a bha againne ach tha i air feum mòr a dhèanamh dhuinn.
Nuair a thòisich mise sa bhuidhinn, bha obair mhòr romhainn a thaobh a’ “Phlana Cànain Nàiseanta Ghàidhlig 2018-2023”—an treas plana—agus às dèidh sin a chur an gnìomh, thòisich sinn ag obair air atharrachaidhean. A’ tighinn a-mach às na h-atharrachaidhean sin bha e soilleir gun robh barrachd dhraghan ann na bha sinn an dùil agus, air sgàth sin, bha sinn a’ bruidhinn ris an luchd-sgrùdaidh againne. A-mach às a sin thàinig an sgrùdadh as doimhne a bha riamh aig Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
Thug na luchd-sgrùdaidh dhuinn plana leasachaidh mionaideach domhainn farsaing. A-mach às a’ phlana sin, thàinig structairean a tha a’ ciallachadh gu bheil a’ bhuidheann a-nis ag obair air leasachadh leantainneach agus gum bi na pròiseasan sin againn gu bràth.
Thairis air a’ bhliadhna a chaidh seachad, tha sinn air tòrr a dhèanamh airson na molaidhean aig an luchd-sgrùdaidh a chur an gnìomh, nam measg: a’ cumail choinneamhan gu poblach; ag ullachadh plana feachd-obrach; a’ neartachadh conaltradh taobh a-staigh agus taobh a-muigh na buidhne; atharrachaidhean ri structaran; agus prògram trèanaidh is leasachaidh mu choinneamh sin. Tha sinn air leth riaraichte gun robh an sgrùdadh bliadhnail seo a’ sealltainn gun robh toraidhean air leth math air a bhith ann.
Shona MacLennan continued in English
Good morning. I am Shona MacLennan, the ceannard of Bòrd na Gàidhlig. The report that we received was challenging but it was also useful. When I started in the organisation, there was significant work to be done on progressing the development of the third national Gaelic language plan, and that work took about a year to complete. As a result of that, I recognised that significant change was required in the organisation and started actions to implement change.
As a result of some of the outputs of those actions, we discussed our auditors’ concerns and, following that discussion, it was agreed that a wider scope audit would be carried out on the organisation. It has been the most in-depth review that has been done of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, and it resulted in a comprehensive and detailed improvement plan and structure, which means that the organisation now has in place continuous improvement processes.
Much work has been undertaken in the past year to implement the auditors’ recommendations, including holding board and committee meetings in public, creating a workforce plan, increasing internal and external communication, changes to structures, and a programme of training and development to supplement those changes. So much work was done that this year’s annual audit report recognised significant improvement.
It might be helpful for the committee to know a little bit about some of the work that Bòrd na Gàidhlig delivers. We work with more than 60 public authorities in developing Gaelic language plans, including the Scottish Government as it renews its Gaelic language plan. Our education team provides advice throughout the country and to the United Kingdom Parliament. Our director of education recently gave information to a UK all-party parliamentary group on oracy in Gaelic-medium education and matters such as cultural diversity in Gaelic-medium education for the Northern Alliance regional improvement collaborative.
We regularly input into draft bills and give evidence to committees. We are working with teams on the proposed human rights bill and we will give evidence on the Children (Scotland) Bill, because they both recognise linguistic rights, so Gaelic needs to be central to them. We are also working with the Scottish Government’s islands team on developing the islands impact assessment so that Gaelic is a part of it.
In response to Covid, we quickly established a resilience fund that was open to all Gaelic organisations, and we awarded more than £200,000 to help approximately 60 organisations to develop resilience. We work with many of our main funded partners to develop more online resources and create better access and branding for those to support Gaelic-medium pupils and their families during lockdown, so that immersion education can continue throughout these difficult times.
We have also been involved with our main funded organisations in adjusting what we expect them to deliver because of Covid. Much of what we fund is cultural and language events, so we have worked with them to make those events available online. That has led to thousands of people across the world participating in Gaelic language events. We have been developing networks to give leadership to the Gaelic community at this challenging time.
I hope that that gives the committee a flavour of how seriously we took the report and how much work we have done to implement it, and shows that we are continuing with our day job. I would like to reiterate a Gaelic saying that I included in my letter to the committee in June, because it describes exactly the process of continuous improvement:
“‘S e obair latha tòiseachadh, ‘s e obair beatha crìochnachadh. It’s a day’s work to start, it’s a life’s work to complete.”
Paul Johnston (Scottish Government)
As the accountable officer for the education portfolio, I was concerned by the content of the 2018-19 Deloitte audit report and the subsequent section 22 report from Audit Scotland. It was clear that a significant programme of improvement required to be undertaken with pace and urgency in order to address the issues that had been raised.
I met the chair, the chief executive and members of the senior team in November 2019, and we agreed that focused work was needed in three key areas: first, building a cohesive, effective and highly performing senior team; secondly, ensuring good practice in managing performance; and thirdly, working openly and communicating effectively with partners and the public to provide emphatic, outgoing leadership to support the development of the Gaelic language.
The 2019-20 audit report that has been shared with the committee demonstrates significant progress in those areas. The auditors recognise greater openness and transparency and improvements in financial planning, workforce planning and training for board members. It comments on improvements in the senior management team and the establishment of an improvement plan steering group to monitor progress. Over one year, they assessed 74 per cent of the actions in the improvement plan as complete, with actual improvement seen in 86 per cent of the areas covered by the plan. That improvement work must continue. A number of areas have been identified for further progress and there is a need to maintain momentum in the delivery of those improvements.
I welcome the open and determined way that the chair and chief executive have gone about leading that improvement work. When the former Auditor General provided evidence to the committee, she said that she was pleased by the extent to which there had been
“a real recognition of the problems and a commitment to the improvements that are needed to resolve them.”—[Official Report, Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee, 16 January 2020; c 16.]
The Scottish Government will continue to support Bòrd na Gàidhlig as it delivers its important work of promoting Gaelic language and culture in Scotland.
I will start with a couple of questions on the section 22 report, then I will move on to the document that was sent to the committee under cover of your 22 September letter.
The section 22 report outlined a number of challenges faced by the board in relation to governance failures. To what extent did those governance failures impact on the delivery of support for the Gaelic language and what engagement work has been done with the community to address that?
We have referred to the volume of work that we have continued to deliver for the development of Gaelic. Our 2018-19 annual report and our 2019-20 annual report, which the board approved yesterday, demonstrate that we delivered almost all the actions in our operational plans for those years. Four out of the 80 actions in the 2019-20 report were not delivered, and three of those were completed after the year end, so we have clear evidence that we have continued to deliver on the day job.
We took a number of actions to increase engagement with our stakeholders. One of those, which I referenced earlier, was to hold committee and board meetings in public; they are webcast and that has been in place since May this year.
In our guidance for those meetings, which is available online, we ask people to submit, via email, any comments on the issues that are discussed by the board or the committee. At the time of publication of the report, in November 2019, I wrote to the chief executives of the main Gaelic organisations to invite them to a meeting with me to discuss the report’s findings, to hear their views on our work and on the report, and to input into how we might work better together for Gaelic. I am pleased to say that all those organisations took up that offer.
Continuing on that theme, since the start of lockdown, the chair and I have instituted a series of meetings with the chairs and chief executives of the Gaelic organisations. I meet the chief executives monthly to discuss current issues and to prepare responses to, for example, Scotland’s route map. We submitted to the Scottish Government a response to the route map from the Gaelic community. All those organisations participated in preparing the information for that response.
In many ways, we have continued to build stakeholder engagement. We have used the report as a mechanism for doing that. We have been transparent with our community about what was in the report, and we have sought people’s views on what we need to do. Yesterday, we had a board meeting at which the programme for engagement for the development of the fourth national plan, which starts in October, was agreed. The first phase of that consultation will run for the next six months. There is continuing and increasing engagement with the community.
The board’s annual audit report and your covering letter, dated 22 September, indicate that there has been improvement. There is an awful lot of stuff in the report. I could go through it bit by bit, but I will highlight eight points that I find concerning. There are references to “inaccurate information”; “concerns about ... financial sustainability”; “further improvements” being needed; “non-compliance”; poor levels of “scrutiny”; the board not understanding “roles and responsibilities”; recommendations not being actioned; and the issue of “transparency” with staff. We have not had the opportunity to go through the report in depth, but those points sprang out at me. Although there has been improvement, there is clearly a long way to go. The report highlights some fairly worrying gaps. How will you address them?
I will address the point about financial sustainability first, because that is a slightly separate issue. In common with many public bodies, we receive a budget from the Scottish Government, which is set each year, and we must operate within that budget. The bulk of our running costs are staffing costs. As those costs rise, we have to manage that in order to keep those costs within our budget.
There is always an issue around ensuring that we manage to be financially viable, which we have achieved, as all our audits have demonstrated. However, in our forward planning, there is always a concern about how to manage increasing costs. We have developed, and are further developing, a medium-term financial plan and a business case to address that issue. That is one part of the picture.
On receiving the report, our view is very much that further work needs to be done. We did immediate work and made a solid start, but we need to continue to develop. Consideration of the areas that the auditors have highlighted in this year’s annual audit report, the outstanding actions from the previous improvement plan and the actions that arise from our annual staff survey will all form our new improvement plan, so there is—
Some of those items are fairly basic. One would expect them to be automatically in place without the need for a special project or a particular focus on them. For example, dealing with inaccurate reporting—that is so basic.
I am not sure whether you have reviewed our improvement plan. The last version ran to 18 pages, and was very detailed. What the auditors referred to are some inaccuracies in that reporting. Yes, absolutely, we need to get better—
Are you saying that the auditors were incorrect?
No. I am saying that the auditors said that there were some inaccuracies in our reporting of the improvement plan. I accept what the auditors have said.
But that is not the type of inaccuracy that is coming out in the report; it is about inaccuracies in information that has been sent to the board.
The improvement plan is reported to the board.
I do not think that it was just about the improvement plan, but let that be. All eight items which I highlighted are so basic; how can they not be getting done?
I assure the committee that the vast majority of it is being done, and that we have—
The report says not.
The report highlights some instances in which it did not happen, but in the vast majority of instances, it happens. The improvement plan, and the training which we continue to deliver in our organisation, will build those systems.
What is your time plan for addressing all the remaining issues?
Some of the issues which were highlighted in this year’s audit report have already been addressed. For instance, one of the actions that the auditors recommended was to acquire additional external expertise for change management. Yesterday, our board approved a paper to implement that action. It has continued to focus on that area. That will give us additional expertise and capacity to deliver the remaining requirements for improvement. We are taking immediate action on that.
Quite a lot is still to be done, and a lot of it is dependent on support from the Scottish Government, as far as I can see, when it comes to board members and their roles and responsibilities. Is a programme in place to provide that support? I invite Paul Johnston to comment.
I am happy to answer that question. In doing so, I want to make it clear that I was keen that the committee was sighted on that most recent audit report, even though it comes early and is pretty fresh, the reason being not that it is perfect—as you have identified, there are significant areas where progress is still needed—but because it demonstrates quite substantial progress.
The pie charts throughout the report tell their own story about the level of progress. Progress has been made in supporting board members. Training has been provided to them on their roles and responsibilities. The chair or chief executive may want to say more about that.
The Scottish Government sponsor team will continue to provide support to the board. Most immediately, that will be through working with the board and the chair on the recruitment of additional board members. That process has been delayed while we paused public appointment recruitment during Covid-19, but I am pleased to say that it is getting up and running again.
Board member recruitment is really important, as is support on what it means to be a board member. We will continue to work with the board on fleshing out the “On Board” guidance.
The report mentions concerns about the direction of the support that is being given, in so far as it seems to be limited to board members. There seems to be a feeling in the report—I am speaking from memory here—that it should cover operational staff as well.10:00
The first report, which led to the Audit Scotland section 22 report, contained some comments about the sponsorship relationship and the Scottish Government’s role in that regard. We took that seriously, and conducted an external review by inviting other teams in the Scottish Government to look at how the sponsorship function was operating. Douglas Ansdell leads that function, so he may wish to say more about it.
We are looking—in fact, we have just looked—at the framework agreement between the Scottish Government and Bòrd na Gàidhlig in order to ensure that there is clarity around roles and responsibilities. It is primarily a matter for the chief executive of the Bòrd and her team to support and develop her staff; I do not think that the committee would expect the Scottish Government’s sponsor team to take an operational role in that respect. Nonetheless, I am keen that we provide from within the Scottish Government all the support that Bòrd na Gàidhlig reasonably requires.
Why are there inaccuracies in the improvement plan?
It goes back to the level and volume of detail and the resources that are available, in combination with the fact that since March this year, all Bòrd na Gàidhlig staff have—in common with many others—been working from home, which makes things such as checking papers and collaboration more difficult.
Why were the auditors able to check and find inaccuracies, when the people who put the report together could not? You have not really answered the question of why.
Why? It is because of the volume of work. We have referred to the fact that work is on-going on the improvement plan at the same time as work on the day job. We have a very small team to do that. I and three others are in the senior management team, and we have three people in our administration team. Our improvement plan currently runs to something like 18 pages.
In your view, what are the inaccuracies? [Inaudible.]
One that I know of involved a reference to an internal audit report. We had a full programme of internal audit last year—10 audits were carried out. Our internal auditors use a ranking system to describe the quality of the audit report they are given. There are four grades. The two good grades, as it were, are “strong” and “substantial”. The best grade is “strong”, and the second-best grade is “substantial”. One of the auditors’ reports said that one of the audit reports had been given a “strong” rating—that is, the highest rating—when it had in fact received a “substantial” rating. That is an example of one of the errors in the improvement plan.
How many errors were there?
From memory, I do not think that the auditors quantified how many—
Surely, once the auditors told you that there were inaccuracies in the improvement plan, you went and checked what those were.
Yes—we then amended them.
How many inaccuracies were there?
There were perhaps five. I am sorry; I cannot give you an accurate number, but that was the scale—
Of the inaccuracies that you recall, were they all as minor as the wrong word, such as “strong” rather than “substantial”, or were there ones that were much more detailed?
They were of that nature, but the auditors might consider it to be no small matter for us to say that we had received the highest grading when in fact we got the second highest grading.
Could I say something else?
Yes—on you go.
We agreed with our auditors—and we discussed this with them in June and subsequently at the audit committee in August—that the new improvement plan will be a much simpler and more strategic document, with clearer key performance indicators. That will make reporting on, challenging or monitoring that reporting much more straightforward. Recognising improvement is needed, and one way in which we will do that is by making a more meaningful plan.
The matter that Colin Beattie picked up—staff not being fully aware of the impact of and improvements in the improvement plan—happened because of the detailed nature of the plan. All such documents are open and are shared with staff, but there is a huge volume of detail in them. Therefore, we want to move to a simpler—
Were the inaccuracies caused by human error?
Do you understand why—given the controversy around the performance of the board and the challenges that it faces—having inaccuracies in an improvement plan does not really help to build confidence?
I absolutely understand that.
Do you accept it?
Dr Stewart Macleod wants to come in, so with Colin Beattie’s permission, I will go to him.
Dr Stewart Macleod (Bòrd na Gàidhlig)
Mòran taing. Perhaps the point that I am about to make has been covered by the ceannard. However, to continue on the question of inaccuracies, I should say that in my view the point that was made by the auditors was a criticism, or an issue, that was raised to bring to the attention of board members the need for them to take on responsibility for scrutinising management and the reports that were sent by management, and for identifying errors in the information that is given to them.
The auditors gave one or two examples of errors that they had noted. Shona MacLennan gave one example; another was the citing of a date on which something had been completed, in relation to which they questioned not whether the task had been completed, but whether the date that was cited was accurate. I am not saying that that is not important, but that it was a point of detail rather than a suggestion that the fundamental information was incorrect or was leading board members in the wrong direction.
Do you know what the five inaccuracies are?
I do not know that it has been enumerated that there were five. I am aware that the auditors gave examples, but I am not sure that they gave a complete list.
Do you know the complete list?
I am not aware that there is a complete list.
The point that was made in the audit report was that board members need to take more care to scrutinise effectively, because inaccuracies had not been picked up by board members, and that should happen. One or two examples of errors were given. I am not sure whether the auditors or anybody else listed a complete set of inaccuracies.
Dr Macleod, as chair of the audit and assurance committee, surely when you were told that there were inaccuracies in the improvement plan you double checked them and listed what they were in order to correct them. Therefore, assuming that you did that—as the chair of the audit and assurance committee—I ask what they were and how many there were?
As Shona MacLennan said, we do not have a list of inaccuracies.
As has been mentioned, we set up a steering group to oversee implementation of the improvement plan. That group is going through the detail of the 72 recommendations and the progress that is being made on them. The steering group is examining the detail and is best placed to focus on the correctness of the detail. As chair of the committee, I receive a report on that, along with many other reports. One of the issues that has been pointed out by the auditors is that the volume of paperwork at committees is excessive, and the range of duties that are carried out by the board is wider, in some respects, than what a small team can deal with. Therefore, it is appropriate that our committee focus on scrutiny and strategic decision making, rather than on operational matters and detail.
You have said that a group is dealing with that, and will know the detail. Who chairs that group?
The group is chaired by a member of the audit and assurance committee—it is made up that chair and two members of staff. They are seeking to extend staff’s input to the group. I do not sit on that group, but I receive its quarterly reports and am in direct contact with its chair, between meetings.
I am not 100 per cent convinced that your responses help to build confidence. I hand over to Adam Tomkins.
This is pretty extraordinary stuff.
I have a quick supplementary for Mr Johnston, on the back of Colin Beattie’s excellent questions to him. I accept that progress can be seen in the most recent report, but it is progress from a very low bar. Mr Beattie is absolutely right to say that the errors that we are talking about are so basic in nature that they beggar belief. What is the Scottish Government’s view on why the bar for progress was allowed to fall so low in the first place? Is it mere incompetence, or is there something more sinister than that?
The Scottish Government is aware that there has been a range of issues around governance within Bòrd na Gàidhlig. Many of them are known. Undoubtedly, however, the very detailed 2018-19 audit clearly set out a wide range of issues that required to be addressed. I have sought to make it clear, through my engagement and through that of the sponsor team—and with engagement from ministers—that we needed swift and material improvement across the range of issues that were covered in the audit report. I accept that the committee is focusing on some of the more critical aspects of the recent report, but if we look at that report in the round, we must acknowledge that there has been very significant progress.
I quoted the particular figures that were set out in the audit in relation to improvement, which broadly show that at least two thirds of the actions that were set out last year have been completed. That relates to an extraordinary range of actions—we have talked about 72 actions in the improvement plan.
One of my concerns is that that number is far too high, and that some more strategic actions are needed. I therefore welcome the work that has been done to ensure that the board does not get drowned in the detail of pages and pages of improvement plan commentary, but is clear about the key activities that must be pursued by Bòrd na Gàidhlig—hence, the proposal to revise and streamline the improvement plan and to ensure that the board is furnished with highly accurate reports from the plan.
In relation to the past few minutes of the discussion, I accept, of course, that we want all reporting to be 100 per cent accurate, and that the board and the executive team must strive for that accuracy. However, it is necessary to recognise that the examples that have been given—such as a date that was not accurate—have been examples of human error, and there is a risk that they have come about, in part, because of the great volume of material. Let us streamline the material, focus on what is most important and, of course, demonstrate a real commitment to accuracy in reporting and to the board playing a robust role in its scrutiny of the executive.10:15
Eighteen pages cannot be drowning the board. You must have 18-page documents presented to you every day, given the wide scope of your portfolio. Are 18 pages really drowning Bòrd na Gàidhlig?
What we are talking about here is spreadsheets that comment in detail on the status of 72 different actions. Of course we can cope with 18 pages of material; the issue that I am raising is whether it represents best use of the board’s time to focus in detail on those 72 actions, and whether it should be playing a strategic role and ensuring that Bòrd na Gàidhlig is delivering on its important purpose in relation to promotion of Gaelic language and culture in Scotland.
From the position of the Scottish Government sponsor team, I would, of course, like to see the very highest standards of governance, oversight and transparency, but I expect the board to be setting direction, looking out and providing the ambitious leadership that we need in relation to promotion of Gaelic language and culture in Scotland.
I agree, but the board also needs to lead its organisation, does it not?
It does, indeed.
I do not think that a worry about the board drowning in paperwork is an adequate reason for there being inaccuracies and our not having confidence in how the board is operating. I do not buy that argument, at all. You will be drowning in information every day, especially in the current climate, with Covid, given that you have such a large brief. I am not willing to accept that Bòrd na Gàidhlig is drowning in an improvement plan when, in fact, it looks as if it is drowning in the detail of a failing organisation. That should be a much bigger concern to the Scottish Government.
The correspondence from the ceannard makes it clear that the Scottish Government sponsor team receives board and committee papers, but no longer attends board meetings. Why does the Scottish Government no longer attend board meetings, given that the organisation is still in a process of transition to efficacy?
I will ask Douglas Ansdell to say a little about what the sponsor team does. We seek to provide active support to Bòrd na Gàidhlig, but there is an important balance to be struck in the sponsor team’s role. It is important that we are not seen as micromanaging, or interfering with, what the board does. For that reason, our role is largely around receipt of papers and the on-going dialogue with the chief executive and the chair. Colleagues in my team speak regularly to the chair and the chief executive and apprise the chair in relation to the specific measures that it is agreed she will focus on.
A lot of detailed work is going on, but that does not, at present, extend to our sitting through committee meetings. I ask Douglas Ansdell to say a little more about what our role entails.
Douglas Ansdell (Scottish Government)
We have a dual role. We sit beside Bòrd na Gàidhlig in the sponsorship role and we work closely with it on a number of policy areas and programmes. I think that there were comments in the 2018-19 audit to the effect that boundaries were blurred; for that reason, we stopped attending committee meetings and board meetings. However, the relationship is still close. We receive papers and we have quarterly meetings in the diary. We are in touch with Bòrd na Gàidhlig on all things very regularly, and we have access to papers from meetings.
The policy and programme areas are significant. We are involved in education, Gaelic arts, Gaelic publishing and community issues, so the relationship is strong and close. Even though we do not attend board meetings, there is still a high level of involvement and partnership.
When did you stop attending board meetings?
We stopped attending board meetings when the first draft of the 2018-19 Deloitte report was issued. The advice to us was that comments were made in that report about blurring of boundaries, so we stopped attending. We did not attend every board meeting or every committee meeting, but we attended as observers.
Was that prior to that report?
That report shook things up.
The report offered all of us things to consider very closely.
Since that report shook things up, we have had an improvement plan, so I would guess that there has been more, not less, Scottish Government intervention. Is that correct?
There has been a different level of intervention and partnership working.
“Different” is such fantastic civil service speak. Given what was in the report in 2018-19, has there been more intervention or less intervention?
I still think that—
Should we say that there has been more intense engagement with the board since 2018-19, if we do not want to say that there has been more intervention?
There has been more intense engagement, and there has been engagement at different levels.
Since the more intense engagement, the Scottish Government has not attended board meetings.
That is correct.
Mary MacInnes, as the chair of the board, do you feel “drowned” in detail?
No, I do not feel drowned, but I feel that there is a lot of work. I was interim chair when the audit was carried out in the early part of 2019. I remained as interim chair until March this year, when I was appointed as permanent chair.
As soon as we got the draft report, I set up a working group of board members. In a previous life, I was a headteacher, so I understand the severity and gravity of audit reports and what they can do to teams and communities.
I was aware that the CEO had very much been moving forward the agenda for improvement. Shona MacLennan had been in post for a year and a half at that time. She had realised, and had instructed and informed us, that change was needed. The improvement plan was produced. That message was not easy to take, but very quickly we got our board together and looked at how we would move forward, as a community.
The work of Bòrd na Gàidhlig covers a wide range of things. Language planning and language development are very complex issues. People on the board come from the variety of communities where Gaelic is nurtured and developed, and they bring many strengths. However, at that time, governance was not a key strength in the board.
Over the months in which the improvement plan was implemented, I directed training and development for board members. We now have a streamlined board and senior management team. We have a focused board and have revisited the committee structure, and we are acting as a more strategic organisation. We have a clear understanding of how we work with the Scottish Government. We also have good and committed support from Mr Swinney, who is the minister with responsibility for the board. In the work that we have done in Gaelic communities in building community and leading other organisations, particularly through lockdown, we have been very fortunate that Bòrd na Gàidhlig is as strong as it is at the moment.
It has not been an easy journey; continuous improvement is hard work, but I have a lot of experience of that. I also understand that errors happen and cause complications, but that is life. We accept the report and all that is in it, and we accept that improvement is a journey. As Shona MacLennan said, it is a day’s work to start, but improvement is an on-going and lifetime process. I fully accept all that has been said to us today, but I am confident that the board is in a much stronger place now than it was 18 months ago.
As the chair of the board, you must have been extremely frustrated that there were inaccuracies in the improvement plan.
Yes, I was. However, as Dr Macleod said, I have quite a firm handle on the work itself. Therefore, although there were inaccuracies and human errors, I am confident that the chair of the improvement group has a robust approach to the improvements.
I am pleased to hear that you are not drowning.
I have to say that the assertions that I am hearing are not really borne out in the report, particularly in connection with the human errors and inaccuracies. We are talking about inaccuracies, insufficient documentation and missing documentation. I find it worrying that the auditors said:
“We have been particularly concerned by updates provided by management to the Board which suggest that the 2018/19 audit findings and recommendations were flawed and were subsequently contradicted by other independent advice. As set out throughout this report, this has not been the case.”
To me, that indicates that the inaccuracies and the missing information go considerably further. Where did that come from? Who is saying that the section 22 report was flawed? That seems like an attempted whitewash in order to make things look better. That report brought out those very facts. In my view, that is quite serious.
The reference there is not to the section 22 report, and it is not to the whole of the governance and transparency report; it is, I believe, a reference to the requirement to refer the organisation to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland.
At no time has there been any question of our not accepting in full the section 22 report and its findings, or those of any of the audit reports.
That is not what the auditors said. They said that confidence in audit quality had been undermined.
My understanding is that that refers to a specific issue whereby the auditors required us to refer ourselves as an organisation to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland. The auditors were sighted on the original email that I sent to the commissioner, because I wanted to ensure transparency and that I was satisfying their recommendation.
The response that we had from the commissioner’s office basically said that it could not comment on hypothetical cases. We then discussed the matter with the auditors. I proposed that we sent additional information to the commissioner’s office and that the auditors were copied in on that, to ensure that our understanding was all the same. They said that that was not necessary. I proceeded as advised. They advised having conversations, and we had conversations. The commissioner’s office continued to say that no action was required.
My understanding is that what you mentioned refers to that specific issue. We have said at all times that that report is extremely difficult and challenging, but that we accept it in full and are committed to implementing its recommendations. Our position is the same with the section 22 report. We take it very seriously. We do not say that there is fault with the audit report—absolutely not. We have continued to work with the auditors on a collaborative basis that is geared to change and improvement, and they have been supportive of us in that.
I have to say that, from reading the report, it sounds different—it sounds as though the auditors have real concern about confidence in audit quality, which they have been trying to address.
I will leave it at that for the moment.10:30
Shona MacLennan, do you accept that referrals to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life are not normal?
I want to go back to Paul Johnston and Douglas Ansdell. Am I right in saying that part of the role of a sponsoring department is to monitor the performance of the organisations that are being sponsored?
Yes, that is part of the role.
Why, then, did the Scottish Government not intervene much earlier? Why did you wait until Bòrd na Gàidhlig got into such a mess before doing anything about it? In fact, it appears that the Scottish Government did not originally do anything about it—it seems that the chief executive took the initiative. Where was the Scottish Government? Why were you not monitoring performance and seeing what was happening?
We had been working closely with the organisation well before the audits came to light. We had sought to support it in a wide variety of ways; Douglas Ansdell can say more about that. However, I fully accept that the range of issues that was highlighted in the audit certainly demonstrated the need for improvement at pace, and for the increased engagement of the Scottish Government on those matters.
Douglas Ansdell can say what we were doing prior to the audit coming about.
Before the 2018-19 audit, improvement actions were in place. A people committee at Bòrd na Gàidhlig was looking at issues of concern. We were very involved with the chair and the chief executive at that time. Actions were in place and progress was being made before the Deloitte committee. The chair at the time had put in place a range of measures to move forward and bring about improvement at Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
In a sense, does that not make it worse? It is clear that the organisation was allowed to get to crisis point before corrective action was taken. Surely the Scottish Government should have been more decisive, intervened much earlier and commissioned the independent report long before it was commissioned.
In her introductory remarks, the chair pointed out that she is the seventh chair in 14 years. It would not take a man or woman from Mars to see that as a proxy for an organisation that is not functioning properly. Having an average tenure of two years for the chair would immediately suggest to me that there is a problem. Did it never strike anybody in St Andrew’s house that the problem was much bigger?
We are not talking about sponsoring an organisation that is the size of Google or Amazon. Bòrd na Gàidhlig turns over £5 million a year. Why did nobody bell the cat and get some action long before anything happened? If you were involved, that is even worse—it means that you were involved with the organisation and did not realise how big a crisis it was in. Why did you not go to the minister and say that you had an organisation that was in crisis—or was about to go into crisis—and was not functioning properly, and that you needed to do something about it?
In going back through the history of the organisation, you are correct to identify the changes in chair; it has also had quite a number of chief executives. At various points in its history—throughout its history, really—work has been done by the Scottish Government to try to support and stabilise the team, with varying levels of success. There have been points at which I think there was stability and the organisation was functioning smoothly, and other points at which there was considerable instability.
One of my reflections from looking carefully at the audit and the action that has been taken in the past year—we see this in other bodies—is just how vital it is to invest in leadership development, and in paying real attention to the people and relational issues around us.
In the past year, Bòrd na Gàidhlig has invested significantly in forming a cohesive leadership team; that has required real attention. It has invested in ensuring that the board is clear about its roles and responsibilities and that it works effectively with the leadership team. Those are some of the matters that have required attention, which at points have been subject to intervention. The intervention over the past year to 18 months has been sustained and intensive, and it has been effective, although I recognise that there is more to do.
Paul, not one word of that answers my question. Why did you not bell the cat? Why did you not do something sooner, before the organisation got into total crisis? You said that you were very closely involved and that you were talking to the various chairs and the numerous chief executives. If you were doing all that, surely you were aware that the organisation needed much more than mild intervention or blurring of lines. There should have been no blurring of lines; you should have been right in there saying, “We’ve got to get this organisation sorted out.” Whatever the reason—whether it is the result of poor management or poor internal controls—surely to goodness, if you are doing your job properly as the sponsoring department, it is your job to have an early warning system so that you can take action before a crisis develops.
It is clear from the section 22 report that the organisation was in crisis for some time, but there was nothing from the Scottish Government. Is there a minute to a minister before the section 22 report warning the minister about how bad things were in the board?
I sought to—
Yes or no—is there a minute to that effect?
The answer, I think, is yes, but let me ask Douglas Ansdell to confirm that.
Could we get a copy of that minute, please?
I can certainly take away that request.
We want a copy of it. That is not a request—we demand a copy. We want to see the evidence.
At every stage, we kept ministers fully informed of events. If—
I am sorry to intervene, but what action did you recommend to the minister?
I will just come on to that. We looked at the comments that were coming to us in Government, which were very similar to the comments that you are making at the moment. The advice to us was that those comments were all very fine but a specific grievance was not mentioned or listed.
When you say, “those comments”, whose comments were they?
We received comments that came to the Government.
They were from independent parties; they were sometimes anonymous.
And you still did not do anything.
No. If I can go on, the advice to us was that the body had its own processes for dealing with grievances and issues. [Interruption.] I am sorry, is there a problem?
No. I was just clarifying to Mr Neil that he is facing away from the microphone and that he should face towards it.
The other issue that we were dealing with at the time was that there were not any specific issues that we could look at in terms of intervention or consideration; there were measures for the body to deal with. That puts the section 22 report in a wider context of improvement and progress, and although there were issues from 2018 and 2019, I would not want the committee to lose sight of the wider context of progress and improvement.
In answer to Alex Neil’s initial question, we kept ministers fully informed and we actively discussed those matters with the chair and the chief executive.
I would sum that up by saying that you were warned by other people about the crisis in Bòrd na Gàidhlig, you looked at it and decided that there was nothing that you could do and that it was an internal matter for the board, which was already in crisis, and you told ministers that there was nothing that they could do about it. It would appear that that is what happened.
I have two questions on that. First, having read the section 22 report, do you think that that was the right course of action? Secondly, can we have a copy of the anonymised comments that you received and a copy of the minutes to ministers recommending no action?
I will do all that I can to share with the committee all that we are able to share, so the answer is yes, I will share all that we can.
Under section 23 of the Public Finance and Accountability (Scotland) Act 2000, the committee is entitled to see all the advice. We need to establish an audit trail to see when the situation developed into a crisis, who did what, how much information was available to the Government about the crisis that was developing and what the advice for ministers was.
Paul Johnston, can you tell us more about the anonymous complaints?
I am not sure that there is much more to say than what Douglas Ansdell has said, which is that a small number of people, as I understand it, raised concerns. One, potentially, was anonymous, and a couple were raised by name. Those concerns were about various elements of the performance of Bòrd na Gàidhlig. Around the time, or just before—
Were they from board members?
No, I do not think that they were from board members. Douglas Ansdell can correct me if I am wrong.
The people concerned were not board members.
Were they employees?
Were they people who had interaction with Bòrd na Gàidhlig?
So they were whistleblowers.
I think that the advice that we had was that none of that amounted to whistleblowing; rather, it was an expression of some concerns about governance, management and leadership in the organisation.
It turns out that those who raised those concerns were right.
We will certainly ensure that the committee has sight of the detail of the concerns, but the improvement action that we are discussing—
I am sorry, but I want to clarify something. The comments in question—which were from two people whose names you know; one of them was anonymous—were made before the Deloitte report. We know from Alex Neil’s exchange that advice went to ministers that “did not amount to anything”—I think that those were Mr Ansdell’s exact words—meaning that it was not thought that there was any substance to them or that any action could be taken.
The Deloitte report then came out, and it substantiated what those complaints were. The complainers—two named and one anonymous—were correct, were they not?
I do not have the detail of the complaints in front of me, so I cannot say that—
You said that they were about governance and leadership issues, so they were correct: there were governance and leadership issues.
I fully accept the range of issues that was highlighted by Deloitte, and those are what the organisation has gone on to address. From memory, some of the concerns that were raised in the letters in question were not necessarily reflected in what Deloitte said required to be addressed.
Well, we look forward to receiving the letters, the advice to ministers, the response that you got back and the communications that then went to Bòrd na Gàidhlig. We look forward to your full transparency, Mr Johnston.
I want to follow up on that. What we have heard so far this morning is extraordinary.
Two of the complaints were not anonymous; I presume that you can tell us who they were from.
It may be that Douglas Ansdell has that information. It is possible that some of the complaints were submitted in confidence, so, If the committee will bear with me, I would rather take that question away and seek advice on what I can disclose. I do not want to breach confidence by being put on the spot today.
I agree with that approach, Mr Johnston.
That is fair enough.
Mr Ansdell, you are described as the head of the Gaelic and Scots team in the Scottish Government. How big is that team?
It is a team of five people.
You have obviously lost your way a bit when it comes to Bòrd na Gàidhlig; you did not keep a grip on what was clearly a shambles.
Alex Neil mentioned a figure of £5 million as the cost of Bòrd na Gàidhlig. I have struggled to find that actual figure, to be honest, and the latest figure that I could see was a bit higher. Could anyone confirm what the annual running costs are?
The annual grant in aid to Bòrd na Gàidhlig is £5.179 million. The running-cost figure, which is listed in the grant-in-aid letter, is slightly over £1.6 million.
Is that £1.6 million plus £5.179 million?
No. The £1.6 million is an element of the £5 million.10:45
Right. What results are you expecting from that £5 million a year?
Bòrd na Gàidhlig has a wide range of tasks and duties, including statutory functions under the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, which are not insignificant. It leads and funds a network of Gaelic organisations that operate in different areas: everything from publishing and Gaelic arts to Gaelic education and resources for teachers and young people.
The board is also involved in many projects and initiatives, not only small community projects but initiatives that involve working with large public bodies in Scottish public life. It has a number of partnerships whereby it works effectively to promote Gaelic. It also has a role with regard to the status of the Gaelic language, and it offers a voice for Gaelic interests and the Gaelic community. It has an advocacy role in representing Gaelic in public life—
Sorry—what I am trying to get at is how we measure the performance of Bòrd na Gàidhlig. In any organisation—especially an organisation that spends £5 million of public money—there have to be targets. What targets have been set, and how can we assess performance against those targets? Maybe the Government is not doing that, but I would hope that it is.
I expect that colleagues at Bòrd na Gàidhlig would be happy to comment on that. There is a national plan for Gaelic, and the board has a corporate plan as well as an implementation plan on progress with the priorities in the national plan.
Does anyone want to expand on that?
I will bring in Shona MacLennan. I think that what Mr Simpson is getting at is the question of what the key performance indicators from the sponsor team are.
That is exactly what I am getting at.
I would imagine that the sponsor team in the Scottish Government would know what the KPIs are for Bòrd na Gàidhlig. I will be happy to bring in Shona MacLennan to tell us what she, as the chief executive of the board, thinks the KPIs are for the board itself, but first I would like to know what KPIs the Scottish Government has for Bòrd na Gàidhlig. That is what Mr Simpson is asking.
We are happy to work with Bòrd na Gàidhlig on the performance indicators and the priorities that it has—
Do you currently have any performance indicators?
And what are they?
We abide by what the board has in its corporate plan, its implementation plan—
So name them. As the team leader, can you tell us what they are?
I am sorry—I do not have them with me. This is—
You are the leader of the sponsorship team for Bòrd na Gàidhlig, and you do not know what the Scottish Government’s KPIs are in that regard.
I would not be able to list or name them right now.
Okay. What else does the Gaelic and Scots team cover?
The Gaelic and Scots team has funding responsibilities for Bòrd na Gàidhlig and funding responsibilities and relationships with Gaelic broadcasting, including MG Alba, which, in partnership with the BBC, operates the Gaelic channel BBC Alba. We also have funding responsibilities and relationships with Stòrlann, which is the body that provides resources for young people in Gaelic education and for teachers and parents. Similarly, we have a funding relationship with the Gaelic college in Skye, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, and we work closely with the local authorities that deliver Gaelic education; we have a grant scheme to provide support in that respect.
How involved with all of those things is Bòrd na Gàidhlig?
It is very involved.
Okay, but the point that I am making is that all of your work relates to a relationship with Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
Not all of our work relates to that.
The vast majority of it does.
The vast majority does, certainly. On many programme and policy areas—be they in education, arts or community issues—we work very closely with Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
That still has not answered my original question, which was what on earth Bòrd na Gàidhlig is expected to deliver every year through those KPIs? I am astonished that the Scottish Government can come here and not tell us what it expects from Bòrd na Gàidhlig. What do the witnesses from Bòrd na Gàidhlig think? Do you know what is expected?
Paul Johnston would like to come in on behalf of the Scottish Government—I will let Shona MacLennan in after that.
I am sure that the board members are keen to describe what they are achieving. From my point of view, the starting point is the statutory responsibilities of the board. This body has specific statutory responsibilities and we expect those KPIs—which are set by the board—to set out how it will deliver on those responsibilities.
At the forefront, the body exists to promote the use of Gaelic language and culture. Therefore, I expect the KPIs to include the extent to which there is increasing use of Gaelic language; that is one very specific KPI, and I think that we are seeing good progress toward the delivery of it.
Earlier, we referred to the national Gaelic language plan. It is Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s duty to produce a national Gaelic language plan for ministers every five years, and we produced the current plan—which runs from 2018 to 2023—in 2018. That was approved by ministers. It has three key aims: increasing the use of Gaelic, increasing the learning of Gaelic and increasing the promotion of Gaelic.
Our corporate plan flows from that. Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s corporate plan also runs for five years, and it focuses on four key aims. Three of those flow from the national plan: increasing the use of Gaelic, increasing the learning of Gaelic and increasing the promotion of Gaelic. The fourth aim is a corporate one, which is developing how Bòrd na Gàidhlig works. Those are our four corporate aims.
Every year, the corporate plan is approved by ministers. The board also approves an operational plan every year. Obviously, that links back to the corporate plan, and the KPIs in the operational plan relate to those four priorities.
The 2019-20 operational plan and annual report and accounts were approved yesterday at the board meeting. There are nine KPIs within them. Two relate to increasing the use of Gaelic, three relate to increasing the learning of it , two to the promotion of it and two to developing how Bòrd na Gàidhlig works. All of those are what we work toward.
I presume that Mr Ansdell knows that.
In the 14 years that Bòrd na Gàidhlig has been in existence, has there been any success in delivering on any of that?
Yes, certainly, there has. There has been a lot of success, and that success is leading to increased pressure on Bòrd na Gàidhlig. The success has come in education, in cultural activity, in the recognition that Gaelic is an economic asset, in help with the difficulties of traditional communities and in relation to the need for Gaelic to be recognised across Government at large. That was all pre-Covid, which is certainly bringing its own challenges.
The board is increasingly under pressure to do more, because more always requires to be done. We have found—and you will find it in the Deloitte report—that we should look at increasing our resources. We have had standstill resources all the time. However, as I speak, there is discussion among the leadership team and the board about how we will put together a business case to take the work of developing Gaelic forward.
Since I have become chair, the board has developed a more strategic role, and I am building connections and relationships the length and breadth of Scotland. One of the good things about being here today is that I am able to speak on behalf of Gaelic and speak the Gaelic language in the Parliament; I thank you for that opportunity.
That is a good thing. I assure you that I have nothing against Gaelic; one of my daughters, who also speaks other languages, has started to learn Gaelic, which is good. I am trying to get to what the board has achieved; for example, have you managed to get more people to speak Gaelic? If so, can you demonstrate that?
We can. Our annual report, which our board approved yesterday, gives many examples of the successes that we have had in relation to our KPIs and plans. We are monitoring that closely.
That progress report would be helpful to the committee, so if you can share that with us, that would be fantastic.
An example of progress is—