Scrutiny Improvement Reviews: a reflection on the first year 

Posted on 28/05/2020 by Ed Hammond.

A year ago – it seems much longer – Government finally published the long-awaited statutory guidance on overview and scrutiny in local government. We followed that up a couple of weeks later with our “good scrutiny guide” and, shortly afterwards, by launching what we called our “scrutiny improvement review” product – a healthcheck for local authority scrutiny.  

We’ve now helped a large number of councils by carrying out scrutiny improvement reviews, or SIRs. It seems like a good time to pause and reflect on some of the common themes emerging from these exercises, and to see if any common lessons themes emerge. In particular, we want to understand whether there are any obvious lessons for councils grappling with the governance and scrutiny implications of the pandemic response.  

The following reflections are drawn from the seven scrutiny improvement reviews which we have carried out so far. As such they provide only a “snapshot” view – a very broadbrush set of findings based both on our own reflections and those who we’ve assisted.  

Before delving into the details, it’s worth dwelling briefly on the experience of having an SIR. As far as possible we wanted to make sure that it imposes a minimum of work on those councils where we are providing support. We have also wanted to make sure that our findings, as we develop them, are credible and realistic.  

As such we’re planning some tweaks to our approach – bringing clarity to the way that we explain and agree the objectives for the work at the outset, and ensuring that we explain better our approach to those in the organisation who may not be as familiar with scrutiny. We have modelled the logistics of our work on the approach that the LGA takes to their peer reviews – it brings a degree of familiarity for the vast majority of councils which have undertaken such a review, and the peer review methodology is a tried, tested and independently verified as being effective. But there are distinctive aspects of our work which suggests the need for a lighter touch in how we engage before, during and after an SIR is completed.  

It’s worth saying that informal feedback so far on the process has been overwhelmingly positive from those councils which have used the method – the proof however will lie in the slightly more formal exercises we conduct to return to those authorities a year on to see what has happened, and the learning from these will go to inform revisions that we make to our approach over the summer.  

The SIR methodology is broken down into a review of four interconnected aspects of scrutiny. These have been developed over a number of years – you can find more about them here.  

Organisational commitment 

A critical part of scrutiny working well is getting commitment and support from the top. Without this, it can’t function effectively. The culture (or cultures) of the organisation – the behaviour, attitudes and values of those in key positions – is of paramount importance.  

In all the places where we’ve carried out an SIR the leadership of the council was vocal in supporting, and wanting to be seen to support, the scrutiny function. In the past, we worked in a number of councils where scrutiny sought to confront the executive head-on – where disagreements escalated quickly because the relationship was combative and adversarial. This tendency has noticeably subsided, and commitment on both sides seems both positive and genuine..  

But sometimes there is political or personal tension within the authority which makes a commitment difficult to translate into reality. The scrutiny/executive relationship can be surprisingly delicate. Different expectations can lead to disagreement and frustration. Both “sides” can feel that they are acting in good faith, but being frustrated by those who do not take scrutiny seriously – whether that is other officers or other members.  

In most instances this seems to derive from a lack of mutual agreement and understanding about the scope and remit of scrutiny. Vagueness around scrutiny’s role and what support and information it needs to transact that role provides a ready-made source for disagreement. Our existing research shows that in order to secure organisational commitment scrutiny needs clarity of purpose. The executive and scrutiny alike need to be able to ask, and answer, the question: what is the function for? We know it exists as a “check and balance” and to “hold to account” but what do these phrases mean in practice? 

In many of the areas we worked with scrutiny had struggled to articulate this central role. In some places scrutiny had evolved into a specific, productive niche – but the executive had not necessarily caught up with this shift.  

Members leading the process 

Members have varying skills, and varying abilities and capacity to commit to and lead their work on scrutiny. We have come across councillors who reflect the very best of the sector – councillors who are dynamic, inquisitive, focused and passionate about making the scrutiny role work.  

Equally, we have encountered members who continue to really struggle with what they are being asked to do, and who lack confidence in being able to lead and direct their own workThere is sometimes a degree of disengagement. Sometimes, this disengagement becomes conflated with party political matters – or disagreements between political groups, especially large groups.  

Where members in chairing positions lack confidence, leadership will often come from elsewhere. The executive, for example, may try to influence scrutiny’s work programme more than is appropriate – or democratic services and scrutiny officers may find themselves in the position of feeding members information. Either way is unsatisfactory.  

The approach that works best is one that recognises that leadership in scrutiny is a team effort, and should not rely on a single chair (or a very small number of chairs and vice-chairs) making the running on every issue and decision. More creative use of task and finish working provides a way to better involve a wider range of members; thinking differently about scrutiny’s ways of working more generally can yield positive results.  

Regular readers of our material will be familiar with our suggestion that individual councillors be assigned the role of “rapporteur”, to develop detailed subject knowledge on certain issues and bring that to bear on discussions inside and outside committee. It’s noticeable that this is an idea which is often popular in theory but less so in practice – it is thought that the work involved for officers and members in sustaining such a system would be too much. We are revisiting the idea in the coming months and seeing if there is a way to make it more practical.  

Issues of leadership, and role, are often coloured by the vexed issue of allowances. Often, political disagreements about the number of roles benefiting from SRAs, and the level of those SRAs, hinders an ability to be able to rethink scrutiny’s systems and structures effectively.  

Prioritisation and use of evidence 

The quality of work programming and the prioritisation of workloads has improved significantly in recent years. Work programmes are now more targeted, and co-ordinated between committees. Topics chosen reflect local need, and reflect those areas where scrutiny might add most value.  

Work programming is taken more seriously than it used to be. There remains a problem with volume, however. If anything, the risk now seems to lie in scrutiny trying to do too much important workCapacity and resources are constrained, and making tough decisions about what matters *not* to look at is extremely difficult.  

The problem is probably lessened when scrutiny benefits from a single unified work programme rather than each committee having its own plan. This assist in co-ordination and management of the function overall – although it can be looked on askance by chairs of committees who can see this as a way of taking away their independence. Whatever happens, our experience suggests that better inter-committee co-operation needs to happen and to be facilitated by members themselves – as things stand, there is in some places too much reliance on scrutiny officers keeping things organised and aligned behind the scenes.   

The overall quality of officer reports submitted to scrutiny committees is higher than it has been in the past – but there remain issues of officers (often senior officers) often not understanding what information members expect and need to see. Members can be inexact in explaining what they want, leading to confusion and misunderstanding.  

Although we have recommended against it now for some time, it is still relatively common for reports providing updates to be submitted to committees for general discussion. Members in some councils use this opportunity to ask general, exploratory questions – not an effective use of time where the scope of such reports (and of council services generally) can be very broad.  

The statutory scrutiny guidance published in May 2019 suggested to councils that they develop an “information digest” that members could use to keep a watching brief on council services and local issues across the board, with this being used to escalate matters to committee in a more informed way. Our annual survey at the end of 2019 suggested that while this was a practice gradually being adopted in many councils it is not yet widespread. We continue to recommend it.  

Structural matters – committee size, numbers, and terms of reference – often rear their head when we talk about prioritisation. Where structure is something that we have looked at, it has been to ensure that scrutiny has a means to look more effectively at corporate issues like finance. Otherwise we have been unwilling to make general judgements on the appropriateness or otherwise of certain committee structures – although we are reviewing whether this will continue to be the case.  

Impact 

Scrutiny has to make a difference.  

Proving that it has, or hasn’t, done remains a significant challenge. We have written on this before. There is no easy answer.  

Some councils where we have conducted SIRs have rigorous systems for establishing the impact and outcomes of scrutiny work. For others, systems are looser. Everything relies on scrutiny making high quality recommendations.  

Recommendation quality remains fairly mixed – with high and low quality recommendations being something we have seen in the same council. Better recommendations are those which is easier to monitor – and where scrutiny does not have to rely on the executive to provide an accurate sense of whether implementation has in fact happened.  

It remains an issue that the executive can bring a degree of elision to the way that it responds to scrutiny’s recommendations. Responses which at first appear robust and constructive may in fact commit to little. We have suggested that councils remember that under the legislation, scrutiny can determine the format in which the executive responds to scrutiny’s recommendations – so it is within scrutiny’s rights to require a substantive response which meets scrutiny’s need to monitor implementation.  

Findings overall

Overall, our work supporting councils to improve has demonstrated that, despite challenges, scrutiny does still manage to deliver work of value. Where disengagement does happen, there is often a route out if the authority and its members want to take it. In some cases, it has helped councils to have an independent, external come in to convene and facilitate some of the conversations which are necessary to begin to improve relationships.  

More than anything else our work has demonstrated that there is no “one size fits all” to scrutiny improvement. Our work in all seven councils has resulted in different sets of findings and suggestions for improvement.  

We are continuing to offer scrutiny improvement reviews through the COVID-19 crisis, albeit virtually. This could be the ideal time to reflect on scrutiny’s post-crisis role and ways of working, and we’re keen to work with councils to continue to do this.  

We are bringing this understanding to bear as we develop a new offer which focuses on the need to ensure that scrutiny is responsive to the COVID-19 crisis. You can find out more about this offer here. 

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.