The focus of our submission to the CLG committee inquiry into overview and scrutiny

Posted on February 7, 2017 by Ed Hammond.

Initial thinking on the inquiry and how you can get involved

We’re delighted that the Communities and Local Government (CLG) Select Committee has decided to conduct an inquiry into overview and scrutiny (O&S). A national inquiry of this kind can be perceived negatively, it’s not! It represents a unique opportunity to bring to a wider audience some of the excellent work that scrutiny practitioners have been doing up and down the country, impacting on local people’s lives.

It also presents us, and you, with the chance to talk about the changes which would make local government scrutiny more effective and more critical to ‘good and open’ governance in these challenging times.

The deadline for responses is 10 March 2017 and we’ve done some early thinking on the main topics to be raised with the committee. In summary they are: 

  • Getting buy-in to scrutiny
  • Changing O&S to reflect the new reality
  • Proving O&S impact and worth 
  • Sorting out the legal stuff

We will produce a detailed response to the Committee’s call for evidence and publish it on the CfPS website when we submit it. We would encourage as many councillors and officers as possible to respond directly. Whole council responses are great but can end up being fairly anodyne, the Committee’s commitment to individual anonymity is helpful.

Here’s a bit more detail about each of our areas of focus – please let us know your thoughts and we can develop them further over the coming weeks:

Getting buy-in to scrutiny

The extent of the executive commitment to O&S varies significantly from council to council. All Leaders, Cabinets and chief officers (with a few exceptions) talk the talk on scrutiny, but far fewer walk the walk.

This is due to many reasons: they have engaged and scrutiny has not proved its worth in terms of the quality of its work; scrutiny’s lack of flexibility and responsiveness; the politicisation of scrutiny and giving away political ‘capital’; and the claim that committees are busy on issues that are not the most important to the leadership, council or residents.

Fundamentally – many feel that it should just “work”, and get frustrated when it doesn’t.

There’s little that Government, or national bodies, can do to insist on a more positive culture of scrutiny. However, reinforcing the principle of scrutiny as fundamental to democracy and giving a voice to non-decision-makers should be a minimum. They also have a role in promoting its worth, value and impact, challenging everyone at a local level to do more, and give local areas the resource and support to take action.

On this final point, one often debated, we won’t be suggesting that the Committee recommend any changes to the existing funding position for scrutiny. We would love scrutiny funding at local level to be placed in the hands of some kind of independent body – rather like the House of Commons Commission provides funding for select committees. This kind of complete independence would provide real protection for scrutiny – and is hugely attractive to those of us fighting for the function – but it is not politically or organisationally feasible, so we want to make other suggestions that are. We’ll let you know more on our ideas as we finalise them over the coming weeks.

Changing scrutiny to reflect the new reality

The way that councils plan and deliver services for local people is very different from the way they worked ten years ago – and ten years from now will be more different still. We have done a lot recently to look into the challenges facing local government – devolution, “transformation”, health integration and other forms of major change. O&S has a vital role to play in critically examining council budgets and providing additional challenge to both a council’s appetite to risk and its resilience in the face of a potential financial crisis.

Scrutiny does not exist in a bubble, and must change to reflect this new reality. It must be more flexible and understand the way that councils structure themselves to deliver services, and the partners they work with. O&S must ensure it has the confidence to hold partners and external delivery partners/ suppliers to account.

This new reality will also involve scrutiny councillors asking themselves some tough questions about how they decide what to look at and what not to look at – much more ruthless (evidence-based) prioritisation will become a necessity.

We have been talking about this growing challenge for at least the last couple of years. Some councils are working to tackle it – for others, cultural challenges and a lack of resources present very real barriers. We want all councils to take the time to review and evaluate their scrutiny functions – not their committee structure but the actual work that scrutiny does – in the light of the changing face of the sector, communities and the people we serve. 

Proving scrutiny’s impact and worth

Back in 2009 the then Secretary of State John Denham described scrutiny as “the lion that has failed to roar”. His statement reflects the general sense from many that scrutiny has not really made as much of a difference as might have been expected at local level, and that it has lacked the profile that it needs to make those changes. This general theme was continued at our democracy and governance conference by Meg Hillier MP in her capacity as chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

Assumptions made about scrutiny’s overall national impact are exactly that – assumptions. We have carried out the only sustained national research on the point and the data is inconclusive and contradictory.

CfPS has developed a robust model for demonstrating return on investment – which provides a model to monetise the impact that O&S can have. The Institute for Government and the Constitution Unit have produced some good guidance on measuring impact and effectiveness of select committees, although it is difficult to extrapolate their conclusions and apply them to local government. The truth is that not many committees locally have the tools in place to measure their impact or publicise their achievements.

It is easy to say that more research is needed on this point, but it is, and we plan to carry some out in 2017, funding permitting. We think that a proper debate on scrutiny’s impact will need to focus on the fact that proving its impact may be difficult; that we may have to look to people’s perceptions, and anecdotal examples, to flesh out what we already know and understand. We’re fairly certain that there can be no national “typology” or method to measure this. Local thinking about scrutiny’s effects and refocusing efforts on areas where scrutiny does seem to make a difference will play the biggest part. 

What Government can do to help

How scrutiny works is defined by a complex range of legislation – both primary (Acts of Parliament) and secondary (statutory instruments such as Regulations and Orders). The gradual changes in scrutiny’s powers since 2000 has led to a complex patchwork of roles and responsibilities which can be difficult to navigate. Scrutiny has different powers in different policy areas, which is a recipe for confusion at local level.

Culture – as we have pointed out – is critically important, and in many areas scrutiny has developed the positive working relationships needed to transcend the difficulties that this situation causes. But more could be done to simplify the position, and Government can do something about it.

Brexit means this is likely to be way down the list of priorities, but if you don’t ask… Our response will make some detailed suggestions of how this could be achieved.

Next steps

We will share our response to the committee as it develops, through the website and blogs over the coming weeks, and publish our submission in full when we complete it.

We will be highlighting examples where scrutiny has got it right and made a tangible impact on people’s lives and the decisions which council’s make. We would also would encourage you to submit your examples of practice which have been particularly effective, as well as addressing the challenges O&S committees face.  In the same breath I’d also like to plug the scrutiny and governance MJ Award again – if you send in a good example to the inquiry – consider submitting it to the awards as well. We certainly welcome anything which raises the profile, at a national level, of the positive impact that scrutiny can and does make.

Evidence must be submitted by 10 march, you can do so by following this link. Do also let us know what you think either via the knowledge hub or email: Elena.konopelko@cfps.org.uk

 

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About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfPS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.