To pick or not to pick: A question of work planning
Last month the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) was consulting on proposals for new statutory guidance on overview and scrutiny in local government. The eagerly awaited Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) text is due to be published in December 2018, and local authorities are required to ‘have regard to’ it’s content. The guidance is being developed following a Select Committee review into the operation of local authority overview and scrutiny.
One area where practitioners have called for more guidance, and where practice varies significantly, relates to the committee work plan. “Better work programmes tend to have clear criteria for the inclusion of items on agendas,” reads a 2014 CfPS scrutiny guide. Accordingly, many local authorities have since developed criteria for their own committees to use in prioritising items. To help stimulate discussion on approaches to work planning, I have set out how Oxford City Council’s Scrutiny Committee prioritises its work, and how it has been useful in developing a balanced and focused work plan.
Oxford uses the ‘TOPIC’ scoring criteria, set out below, as a way of prioritising and scheduling work plan items. Each year, all councillors are invited to contribute to a longlist of potential work plan items. As the Scrutiny Officer, I then work with senior managers, and the Committee Chair and Vice-Chair, to score each item (from 0-2) against the 5 Criteria. A proposed work plan is then presented to the Committee.
Timely: Work plans should take account of work in other areas, and avoid duplication. Practitioners should consider if now is the best time to consider the issue, and whether there are legislative or policy changes afoot.
Organisational Priority: Work plans should take account of the Council’s overall vision for the area. A good proportion of the Committee’s work should relate to the Council’s plan and priorities. This is crucial in demonstrating how scrutiny can add value to the Council.
Public Interest: Councillors’ representative roles are an essential feature of Scrutiny. They are the eyes and ears of the public, ensuring that services address local needs. The interests of local people should therefore influence and guide the issues chosen for scrutiny.
Influence: Generally, Scrutiny Committees are better placed to influence council services than external agencies, and effective relationships are essential for exerting influence. Consider whether the committee’s input will drive outcomes and change.
Cost: Services or decisions which have high levels of income, expenditure or savings should be prioritised. Effective scrutiny of financial matters is a cornerstone of good scrutiny, and significant spending plans should not go unscrutinised.
This year we gave additional weighting to score up to 3 for Organisational Priority and Public Interest, which we consider the most important. At Oxford, items that score the highest are prioritised for review, sometimes through dedicated task and finish groups. Typically, this approach brings a longlist of ~60 suggestions down to 30 – 40 key issues, most of which will be considered in a given year.
Issues that scored highest at our most recent review included Homelessness, Air Quality and the Local Plan. Abandoned Shopping Trolleys scored lowest of the suggestions put forward by councillors.
The quality and quantity of scrutiny work across the sector can often be limited by the time and resources available. The TOPIC criteria have helped Oxford in prioritising scrutiny resources for key pieces of work to maximise effectiveness, rather than spreading efforts too thin.
TOPIC provides a fairly rigid approach to prioritisation, and the rationale and objective assumptions of these criteria may clash with the subjective nature of the political environment. Whilst the scoring system aspires to be objective, it cannot necessarily take account of the nuances and complexities of all issues, and Oxford’s councillors are advised to use their best judgement in agreeing which items to take forward, having had regard to the scoring.
As we await the new guidance from MHCLG, I hope its content strikes a balance between advocating best practice principles and scrutiny design, whilst not restricting other practices and innovations in the sector. Crucially, the guidance may influence the structure of local accountability for decades to come. A prescriptive ‘one-size-fits-all’ narrative risks undermining the varied approaches that ‘work’ already and the adaptability of scrutiny in years to come.
Written by Stefan Robinson, Scrutiny Officer, Oxford City Council