Open up to scrutiny

By Ed Hammond | 07 May 2019

New government guidance rarely provides a reason for celebration. But at the Centre for Public Scrutiny we hope that the statutory guidance on overview and scrutiny just published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) will help councils to reflect on and improve the way that they support councillors’ non-executive activities – even when we know many will be grappling with an influx of new members.

Councils around the country have demonstrated the significant, sustained impact that scrutiny can have since it was first introduced 20 years ago. But for many, scrutiny has failed to live up to its potential. For some, it looks and feels like a continuation of the old committee system but without the decision-making responsibility – a circular talking shop that exists to keep councillors busy, rather than the vital part of the sector’s future that we know it to be.

Leaders and others in senior positions, we know, express frustration with scrutiny when it operates like this. To these people, our message is a blunt one. It is in your gift to change this. Scrutiny stands and falls by the commitment of those in charge. These people need to take active steps to promote and support scrutiny.

With this commitment, getting things right is not complicated. Firstly, it becomes possible to agree and articulate a clear role for scrutiny – beyond the vagueness of ‘holding the executive to account’, on to a proper expression of the unique value that scrutiny will bring to local people. Secondly, information needs to be opened up – members need timely access to the data that they need to support their work. Thirdly, members need to have the support to use this data to intelligently decide what they will, and won’t, investigate. These three steps together will help scrutiny to improve – to become more focused. But they rest on the active support of the executive to make them happen. The irony is not lost on us; but a council leadership which is prepared to open itself up meaningfully to the involvement of scrutiny will find their investment repaid.

In the coming weeks we will be publishing more material to support councils to understand how and where they can improve on this issue, and on wider governance. We welcome the opportunity to talk to councils about how we can help, and to talk to and challenge those in leadership position in particular to do more to advocate for and support scrutiny.

The MJ Case Study:

A new model for scrutiny at Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole councillors know how important effective work prioritisation is, having worked with the Centre for Public Scrutiny to understand the unique role that scrutiny could play in the transition of these councils to form the new BCP Council, which was formally established on 1 April 2019. 

This has required scrutiny councillors to understand their unique place within a complex and changing governance structure and look beyond simply ‘holding the executive to account’. A positive culture in which executive and scrutiny members understand and appreciate each other’s roles has led to some new practices for scrutiny in the effort to find solutions to the fast pace of work that accompanies the formation of a brand new council in just over a year from receiving government go ahead. Using a ‘risk lens’ to prioritise their work has enabled overview and scrutiny  to focus in on the issues of high importance – such as preparing the budget for the new council. This has helped to avoid the potential overwhelm of scrutiny, in which everything is a priority but nothing is done well - an easy pitfall when every decision taken in designing and creating a new council feels essential to scrutinise. By agreeing a focus for scrutiny, all those involved in transition work knew what value scrutiny was bringing to the overall programme of transition,  and scrutiny members felt confident that they were working productively on behalf of residents to gain assurances on the most critical of decisions.

Keeping a close eye on the plans for day one service delivery by the new council has been achieved by using a scrutiny rapporteur model – a new way of working for most of the councillors which involves pairs of overview and scrutiny  members liaising informally with executive members to keep abreast of the progress within each service area.

A mix of formal committee meetings and informal working has helped scrutiny to keep pace with the executive, and a culture of openness has ensured that issues and risks could be discussed with overview and scrutiny members as they arose. They had the option to elevate these to full committee if further scrutiny was required. This has enabled overview and scrutiny members to be equipped with the full picture and to build a good foundation of inventive and effective ways of working to take forward to the new BCP authority.

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