Who are the bean-counters? Audit and scrutiny may appear to be a faceless world in which one measured, carefully worded report follows another.But for the men - and they are men - who have reached the most senior levels in the biggest offices, the jobs offer more than that.

Commitment to public service and passion for detail are two of the key attributes for those who reach the top of the greasy pole.

Paul Smith profiles some of those running the largest audit bodies - and takes a look at the newest kid on the block.

Sir Andrew Foster - comptroller, Audit Commission

Sir Andrew began his career in the public sector as a social worker, and rose through the system to become head of Greenwich and then North Yorkshire social services.He joined the NHS in 1987 as general manager of Yorkshire regional health authority, of which he became deputy chief executive four years later.

In an HSJ profile three years ago, critics accused him of moving from job to job 'before objects hit the fan'. They were proved wrong.

Sir Andrew, 56, has been in his current post since 1992 and presided over a series of high-profile reports - including criticism of the mortality rates of critical care services across the NHS, which sparked debate and contributed to the government's decision to reverse the bed-cutting trend.

Sir Andrew also sits on a number of government taskforces, including the Treasury public service productivity panel. He is now on the panel's steering group.

In 1999, he joined the Cabinet Office's modernising government policy board. He is also a prime ministerial adviser on reform of the NHS.He was knighted in June 2001, in recognition of his achievements during an extensive career in public service.

Dr Peter Homa - director, Commission for Health Improvement

Dr Homa was awarded a CBE last summer.His career started on the front line of the NHS - he worked as a hospital porter before joining the national administrative training scheme in 1981.He eventually ended up as chief executive of Leicester Royal Infirmary before he was seconded to become the government's waiting list-buster in 1998 by creating and running the National Patients' Access Team.

He has been the president of the Institute of Health Service Management but took on his high-profile role leading CHI in August 1999. Dr Homa has tried to move CHI away from the 'name and shame' reputation of Ofsted, selling it as 'supportive' and 'developmental'.

Alan Meekings - chief executive, District Audit

The appointment of Alan Meekings was announced at the beginning of the year. He moved from South East regional office, where he used his accountancy training as director of finance and corporate services. He was also director of finance at North Thames regional office and director of finance and performance management at North Thames regional health authority.

Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancyqualified, Mr Meekings is said to be 'passionately' committed to public service and has both 'integrity and independence' - both qualities at the heart of the District AudIt is work. He is also said to have considerable experience of change management. He said: 'We work closely with local government and the health service, and that will continue. We have around 1,400 people out there and we see our role very much as a field force, working on the front line.

There is not a lot that we do not know about.'

Sir John Bourn - comptroller, National Audit Office

Sir John has a civil service background. He studied at the London School of Economics, where he gained a first-class degree in economics and then a PhD. Since 1956 he has worked mainly in the Ministry of Defence, but his career has also included stints at the Treasury, the Northern Ireland office in London and Belfast, as well as at the civil service college.

He has worked at the very top of the civil service and in 1985 he became deputy under secretary of state for defence procurement.

He became comptroller and auditor general in 1988. He criticised his former ministry for serious delays in many major defence projects - including the purchase of a£34m computer system that was never used.

When the Audit Commission reported in 1998 that a private finance initiative project for Guy's Hospital, London, had come in three years late and four times over its cost estimate, Sir John stepped in.He urged health authorities and trusts to ensure they had clearly defined responsibilities for all partners in NHS projects.

John Watkinson - Audit Commission, working on NHS plan issues

Another new appointment to the Audit Commission, John Watkinson, is chief executive of Sherwood Forest Hospitals trust.

Head-hunted by the commission, he will be working on issues related to the NHS plan when he takes up his post at the end of the month.

He spent nine years at the helm of King's Mill Centre for Health Care Services, which became Sherwood Forest Hospitals trust.

There he developed the concept of 'hospitals without walls' and won an HSJ management award for setting up a series of initiatives to deal with winter pressures.

Last year, the trust hit the headlines over claims the centre had thrown children's organs away with the rubbish: an inquiry found the allegations to be 'completely unfounded'. But it did say the timing of disposal of tissue - in the face of new guidance issued at the height of concern about organ retention - was 'inappropriate'. Trust managers were unaware of the guidance, and Mr Watkinson claimed he did not receive a key letter from health secretary Alan Milburn.