Viewpoint: how scrutiny councillors can shape the future of local government

Ed Hammond discusses the Centre for Public Scrutiny’s new report the Change Game, and argues that non-Cabinet councillors should be more engaged with council’s plans for transformation.

Councils are grappling with financial, and other challenges which are provoking them to think differently about what local people need and expect. Many councils’ are engaged in transformation, or major service change exercises to tackle these challenges. In many cases this is seeing councils review, redesign or decommission services, making decisions which will affect local people’s lives for the next ten, fifteen, twenty years.

The pressure, naturally, is to get these decisions right. Senior officers and Cabinet members are not the sole guardians of knowledge and insight on what local people need, but we have found that in too many councils, non-Cabinet councillors are being frozen out of meaningful debate and discussion about transformation plans. We recently carried out a survey of local authorities in England and Wales (with a response rate of 80%) which highlighted that, in more than half of councils, non-executive councillors, through the scrutiny process, had no substantive involvement in major service change plans.

Over 2014/15, we at the Centre for Public Scrutiny have been helping nine local areas as they grapple with these issues. We wanted to try to explore how we could bring more elected members into discussions about transformation. I should point out that this was not about sending “more stuff” to scrutiny committees – it was instead about trying to provide councils with a framework within which they could think about involving non-executive councillors in major service change plans in a way that adds value and makes those plans demonstrably better.

We designed and tested these ideas with nine local areas across England and Wales. With those areas we developed five key messages which we think will have resonance across English local government. Some more detail about those messages and the evidence surrounding them can be found in our report, The Change Game.

Firstly, in order to make a difference, scrutiny councillors must understand the rationale for major change. This is about members assuring themselves that this rationale is underpinning by robust evidence. Without this understanding, their ability to add value to the process is limited.

Secondly, scrutiny councillors need to understand the change. What actually is being developed and proposed? What are the likely impacts, and risks? Non-executive councillors can bring to bear their own insights, based on their ward work in particular, in constructively challenging what Cabinet is planning. Councillors can look further at the evidence base to ensure that key options have been considered and weighted appropriately.

Thirdly, scrutiny councillors need to plan well, and stick to that plan. Plans for transformation and change can be enormously complex, and to add any value members need to be extremely clear about exactly what they are focusing in on, and why. We suggest that scrutiny councillors identify a particular niche, or focus area, for their investigations. This might involve looking at transformation plans with a focus on the customer/resident, a focus on value (including social value), a focus on risk, a focus on organisational development (ensuring that the organisation has the skills and capacity to deliver change) or a focus on performance and quality.

Fourthly, scrutiny councillors need to “own the change” themselves. Scrutiny is an integral part of the council’s corporate governance arrangements. Scrutiny shouldn’t be seen as sitting off to one side, commenting after the event. It will be a critical element of the policy development process itself. This gives scrutiny councillors a clear stake in that process. It will demand that changes in behaviours and attitudes happen on all sides.

Finally, scrutiny councillors may need to be prepared to change scrutiny itself. Scrutiny will need to be flexible and dynamic to get involved at the right time. This is likely to require scrutiny councillors, and the officers who support them, to revisit their ways of working, and the usual methodologies for scrutiny work, and explore how these might need to change.

Ed Hammond is Head of Programmes (Local Accountability) at the Centre for Public Scrutiny

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