Scrutiny: divided opinions

Posted on June 20, 2017 by Elena Konopelko.

We recently published the results of our scrutiny perceptions survey in the form of an infographic (here). However, given the amount of data we got we also wanted to explore the results in some more detail through a series of blogs.

Among the many findings there is a particularly interesting one: opinions on scrutiny heavily depend on your role in local government.

It seemed that on any question views of scrutiny committee chairs were always the most positive, while scrutiny and democratic services were more critical. The most negative opinions about scrutiny always came from local government employees not directly involved with the function.

Here are some examples. For instance, 42% of scrutiny committee chairs said that politics had no impact on scrutiny. That comes in stark contrast with only 22% of scrutiny officers thinking the same.

The difference is not only between the views of chairs and officers. Councillors who are sitting on scrutiny committees don’t have quite the same level of positivity about their work as chairs might do. In answering the same question, 37 % councillors said that politics is not an important dimension of scrutiny’s work (still much higher than officers though).

Another example comes from a question on work programme development: only 3% of scrutiny councillors said that those committees’ work programmes were chaotic and unclear. In comparison, over 25% of all the scrutiny officers said that scrutiny’s work programmes are unclear and chaotic.

Without any exception, regardless of the question, the pattern holds up. The difference in opinions between these groups was significant: scrutiny committee chairs were at times 30% more optimistic on any matter.

This fact prompts further questions.

Could it be that officers and councillors are working in slightly different ways and hence are being exposed to a different picture? Scrutiny officers may occupy more junior positions in the organisation’s hierarchy, and their day-to-day work involves more direct contact with other officers who may have more negative perceptions of scrutiny. Do they, as a result, have a more gloomy and pessimistic view?

Or could it mean that scrutiny chairs are not engaging sufficiently with other councillors and officers and therefore underplay the challenges that scrutiny has? Likewise could it be that members, and Chairs in particular, experience some of the positive impact that scrutiny has and that this is more apparent in their council and wider interactions. Maybe these are experiences which officers do not have and so feel less optimistic about the work they are involved in.

Is there, perhaps, an inherit difference that comes with a role? More importantly, are some voices more objective than the others?

So far, all potential answers would be speculative. However, one thing is clear: those who support scrutiny and elected scrutiny members have at times opposite views over the same issue and are clearly not on the same page. This could lead to all kinds of difficulties in both managing the function and ensuring the success of scrutiny in local government.

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About the Author: Elena Konopelko

Elena is CfPS's Policy and Research Coordinator. She provides policy support and research oversight on CfPS’s primary areas of interest. Elena provides additional expertise to assist with the delivery of consultancy projects and supports business development work through the management of information.