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Making scrutiny count

Andy-HullCllr Andy Hull was the 2012 LGiU/CCLA Scrutineer of the Year award winner. In a post based on an LGiU members’ briefing he looks at the scrutiny process and how to devise a successful scrutiny programme. Find out how to enter the 2013 CCLA/LGiU Scrutineer of the Year Award.

At its worst, local government scrutiny can be a way to tie backbench councillors up and keep them busy while executive councillors get on with the real business of running the council. At its best, it is a vital component of good governance and improves councils’ decision-making, service provision and cost-effectiveness.

Political without being partisan, scrutiny can provide independent challenge to executive decision-making, delivering the accountability that constitutes one of Nolan’s Seven Principles of Public Life and that is crucial to modern, efficient local government. It can and should influence decisions on matters of administration, employment, expenditure and policy.

A strong accountability framework promotes confidence in a council’s administration. The primary role of scrutiny then is to guarantee this democratic accountability within the local government system. It does this by seeking to modify executive behaviour and prevent the abuse of power.

The legal framework

Scrutiny in local government was formally ushered in by the Local Government Act 2000. With the abolition of the old committee structure and the advent of the new executive model, scrutiny was introduced to check the power of the new council cabinets. Since then, subsequent acts of parliament have bolstered scrutiny by extending its remit (and its statutory responsibilities) beyond the council to the work of partner organisations as well. For example, the Health and Social Care Act 2001 gave councils the responsibility for scrutinising local NHS Trusts, including Primary Care Trusts; the Police and Justice Act 2006 gave councils the power to scrutinise the work of Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships; and the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 enabled local authorities to scrutinise other partners, such as the Environment Agency. Much of this legislation was then consolidated in the Localism Act 2011.

Within each council, the precise arrangements for scrutiny are codified in the Constitution, with local authorities afforded some flexibility as to how they configure their respective scrutiny arrangements.

Types of scrutiny

Scrutiny in local government can be divided into three broad categories: horizon-scanning scrutiny; pre-decision scrutiny; and post-decision scrutiny.

Horizon-scanning scrutiny

Horizon-scanning scrutiny looks ahead to changes that are likely to be visited upon local government in order to help councils adapt to them accordingly. This will usually mean considering future actions by central government that will have repercussions for local government. For example, looking ahead to the government’s introduction of Universal Credit in the welfare system in order to inform preparation at a local level for its arrival.

Pre-decision scrutiny

Pre-decision scrutiny examines a council’s proposals, objectives and draft programmes in order to inform their development before they are enacted. In this way, scrutiny can help the council to achieve optimum impact by avoiding mistakes and grasping opportunities in its target-setting, policy-making and service delivery.

Post-decision scrutiny

Post-decision scrutiny examines the implementation of council policy and performance in terms of service delivery. It enables the council to review the effects of its decision-making, helping it to recognise any unforeseen consequences and assisting it to revise its policy and practice accordingly.

Programming scrutiny

For a committee’s scrutiny programme to be effective, it must not be packed with so many separate scrutinies that none of them can be done properly. One major scrutiny and perhaps two shorter reviews in the course of a year is realistic. Running simultaneous scrutinies in parallel is possible but can lead to insufficient meeting time being allocated to each scrutiny. Coordination with other council committees, especially the overview committee, is advisable when programming in order to avoid duplication or interference. A certain amount of flex should also be built into the scrutiny programme to allow for unexpected developments, such as the desire to scrutinise the council’s performance in response to last summer’s riots in their immediate aftermath.

Timeliness in scrutiny is key. Scrutinies need to be timetabled in such a way as to gel with executive decision-making schedules. This allows scrutinies to intervene at appropriate junctures for maximum impact. For example, pre-decision scrutiny must conclude well prior to the time when a relevant executive decision is to be made, allowing the executive time to factor the scrutiny’s findings into their subsequent decision. Post-decision scrutiny should not occur until the policy to be scrutinised has had time to take effect. Horizon-scanning scrutiny is most productive when sufficient information is available about developments on the horizon to ask informed questions about them.

Selecting topics

Members of a scrutiny committee, steered by the chair, and advised by officers, should select the topics the committee wishes to scrutinise. In order to prioritise topics, the committee might consider the council’s overall priorities (eg as laid out in its corporate plan), the levels of impact of different policies on local residents (eg as estimated by casework volumes) and the public resonance an issue has (as expressed through media coverage or mailbag contents). Members may choose to scrutinise areas which they consider important but which otherwise receive little attention elsewhere. Scrutiny can also provide a useful focus for public concern on an issue. In selecting topics, a scrutiny committee should ordinarily avoid re-examining topics which have been scrutinised in the recent past, drawing on the council’s institutional memory.

Scoping a scrutiny

Once a scrutiny committee has set its programme for the year and selected a topic to scrutinise, it needs to scope out that scrutiny. This initial scoping exercise might productively result in a Scrutiny Initiation Document that details the terms of reference for the scrutiny. This could include which subjects will be covered, which headline questions will be asked, what sorts of evidence will be sought, what witnesses will be called, what visits will be undertaken, a timeline for the scrutiny, and so on. Such a document is useful for communicating to colleagues and others what the scrutiny is about. It may evolve as the scrutiny process proceeds, but it provides a helpful single point of reference to which anyone can turn. It should also help committee members to focus on the priority issues and avoid unhelpful ‘mission creep’.

Other options open to members in scoping a scrutiny include seeking the involvement of co-opted non-voting panellists with relevant expertise; finding ways for the public not only to observe the scrutiny but to participate in it; assigning a particular committee member as the champion or lead for the scrutiny; forming sub-committees to pursue particular aspects of the scrutiny; suggesting a joint committee meeting is held with another committee where committees’ responsibilities appear to overlap; combining forces with the equivalent committee of another local authority for a session to compare and contrast policy and practice; and private pre-meetings with staff to help prepare.

Evidence gathering

Evidence for scrutiny can take a number of forms, including documentary (eg reports, data sets, policy documents, press clippings), verbal (eg live witness testimony from local residents or relevant experts) and audio-visual (eg extracts from television programmes). Visits to relevant locations in the area to listen, for instance, to service users and staff, can supplement that evidence which is heard in formal committee meetings: seeing policy in action can be the best way to understand its effect on the ground.

A healthy mix of evidence should be sought to ensure different sides of an issue are explored. In particular, officers’ reports alone are unlikely to provide as rich a picture as is desirable. Members will, of course, also bring to bear on the scrutiny their own lived experiences and information gathered informally.

Whilst it is true that ‘the plural of anecdote is not data’, it is also true that data alone can only ever tell part of the story. Lastly, scrutiny committees are empowered to acquire the information they need to perform effective scrutiny, so attempts to withhold relevant information as exempt for reasons of (eg) commercial confidentiality should not necessarily go unchallenged.

Report writing

At the end of a scrutiny process, normally the committee will seek to generate an output in the form of a written report. The report may be drafted by officers but it should be discussed in draft and quality-assured by members.

A scrutiny report will then go to the Executive for consideration and action. In order to make a report as useful as possible, it should be relatively short and include a select number of concrete recommendations. These recommendations should, wherever possible, be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timed). The report’s audience, especially Executive members, are busy people with limited time, which means they are unlikely to read all the way through a lengthy report. Moreover, a set of recommendations benefits from being short enough to be manageable, enabling focused implementation, rather than a scattergun approach.

Follow up

As with parliamentary select committees, local government scrutiny’s outputs may be reports with recommendations, but its outcomes should be real change in the way a council does its business. Signing off a scrutiny report and submitting it to the Executive for consideration should not be where the process ends. It may assist for the scrutiny committee chair or another committee member to attend the Executive meeting at which the report is to be discussed, to present it and answer any questions. After the Executive meeting, a review date should be set (a year later as a default) for the committee to receive a report back from officers on progress made towards implementing the scrutiny’s recommendations. It is important to keep an eye on the ball in this way if scrutiny reports are not to gather dust on town hall shelves. Media interest, if kindled, can help maintain this pressure.

Support for scrutiny

Effective scrutiny is time-consuming and difficult. Members are likely to need support to do it well. The most obvious source for this support is the council staff who service the authority’s scrutiny function: collaborating closely and making the most of their time is invaluable. The Centre for Public Scrutiny also has a wealth of materials available for those engaged in scrutiny to read and use. And there are local authority scrutiny networks in place across all regions of England in which both members and officers can take part, compare notes and share good practice.

This post first appeared as an LGiU members’ briefing.

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