A review to learn lessons not lay blame

By Lord Bob Kerslake | 27 July 2020

Identifying the right time to pause, step back and consider lessons learnt is never easy, more so in the current circumstance when the crisis is unprecedented, the response ongoing and the community and organisational impact severe.

I do however strongly believe that now is the right time to review, both nationally and locally. The purpose of any review would not be to lay blame but to learn lessons and assess the capacity and resilience for future responses. It is the right time to catch our collective breadth, step back and equip ourselves to handle the challenges of the winter.

Each council has opportunity and responsibility to act now. In considering how best to approach the task, these reviews should be democratically-led by the overview and scrutiny function – bringing the necessary independence and transparency needed to assess decision-making. The efforts that went into maintaining scrutiny’s role in reviewing and reporting on the crisis response should be continued with this focus. 

Last week I spoke at a webinar run by CfPS, supporting councillors and officers as they considered how to step back and review their organisational approaches. I appreciated that the task and scope could feel overwhelming and daunting. In leading the review of the response to the Manchester Arena bombing, our focus was to look at the impact from a public perspective. From this experience, I know the most value comes when the focus is tight – answering a small number of critical questions relevant to the local experience.

CfPS will be launching a set of critical review questions which they will encourage councils to respond to and share the insight to be collated nationally. They are also available to use their experience to help design, deliver and assure council reviews. This could serve to lay the foundation for scrutiny’s involvement in some of the major policy development work which will, for everyone, follow on from the crisis – as we fundamentally rethink the services we provide and the way we provide them both in light of the pandemic and the sector’s financial crisis.

Nationally there does not appear to be an appetite to learn lessons now. Even when reviews do happen, they often take the form of inquiries which take years and result in disappointment for those people most personally affected by the crisis. Others have commented on the risks attached to carrying out a public inquiry using the powers in the Inquiries Act – legislation which gives Government significant powers to select the terms of reference and membership of such inquiries.  This model seems uniquely unsuited for the multifaceted and community-led review we need to carry out, together and across the country, of the pandemic and its impacts. It is also a process that will only ‘begin’ once the crisis ‘ends’ - hardly conducive to learning and acting on the lessons of recent months quickly and dynamically.

Local government has the chance to lead the way. We do not know what is going to happen over the next six months, but there will be intrinsic value from carrying out swift and focused reviews, demonstrating to the public our ability to publicly and transparently learn and improve.

Lord Bob Kerslake is chair of the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS)

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