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The 2008 annual survey of overview and scrutiny in local government
The results of the 2008 CfPS annual survey of overview and scrutiny in local government are in and the full report will be available on the website shortly. Thank you to everyone who responded: with 690 responses (a 110% increase) representing 67% of all authorities (a 4% increase on 2007), the survey provides an increasingly robust picture of scrutiny in local government
Given current economic circumstances our attention naturally is drawn to the headline statistics concerning capacity and resources. The 2008 survey has revealed that the average number of dedicated scrutiny officers across all authorities has remained at 2.1 which would seem to suggest that the conflicting demands to cut spending in non-service areas on the one hand and increase the capacity of scrutiny on the other have resulted in status quo.
However, the need for district councils not to be excluded from the requirement for a dedicated scrutiny officer in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill is further highlighted, as districts now have less than one full time equivalent scrutiny officer on average. Numbers of scrutiny officers in Welsh authorities and Metropolitan Boroughs seem to have hit a ceiling whilst scrutiny officer provision in unitary authorities seems most under pressure, having declined by almost a whole officer per authority in the last year falling to an average of 2.71.
Another yardstick of the extent to which scrutiny is getting the support it needs to grow into its expanding role is the size of the discretionary budget. Alas, the news is not encouraging. The average discretionary budget has fallen by 16% since 2007 to £9,917, with district and Welsh authorities being hit particularly badly. With Whitehall expecting overview and scrutiny to deal with more petitions, scrutiny of partnerships, and Councillor Calls for Action, this pressure on resources threatens to derail community engagement when it is needed most. The average number of suggestions for scrutiny topics coming from the public has fallen from 6 in 2007 to just 4 with 55% of authorities having received 0 suggestions. However, the proportion of Members indicating that they are proposing scrutiny topics on behalf of the public has increased by 9% to 55%, suggesting that Members may be filling the engagement gap on residents’ behalf.
Whilst the 2008 survey of overview and scrutiny in local government shows that a lack of resources poses a threat to the development of scrutiny, public engagement and accountability, it also highlights how far the scrutiny function has come since 2000. Responses across the board are becoming less uniform as authorities specialise and develop their own individual approach. Professional scrutineers are developing a voice and our survey indicates that 65% of scrutiny officers would be in favour of joining a membership body to aid the development of their profession. Furthermore, 55% of Members indicated they would be interested in more formal training to help improve the effectiveness of scrutiny. It would seem that scrutineers are ready to face the challenges and opportunities of delivering accountability in a recession but more attention must be paid to making the case for proper resourcing for scrutiny.