2021 annual survey: main findings
Our annual survey of overview and scrutiny in local government is published today (7 July). It’s been the first opportunity to fully assess the impact of the pandemic on councils’ scrutiny functions, and to think about the role that scrutiny might play as we set about the task of recovery.
Councils’ approaches on, and successes in organising, their scrutiny functions continue to vary dramatically. It’s always been the case that our survey can elide some of these stark differences, which is why we’re increasingly turning to the analysis of “free text” answers to get feedback rather than asking questions about structures and processes, which can average out in unpredictable ways. These increasing differences also make it more and more difficult for us to talk about and highlight “good practice” – such practice hinges on the attitude and approach of members and officers working in individual authorities. Success in a particular way of working in one authority does not guarantee success for another, if the second council simply copies the approach of the first.
There are, however, some common lessons we can take from the experience of the last few months.
On pandemic response, where scrutiny continued throughout the pandemic it was able to play a useful and relevant role. But in a surprising number of authorities, scrutiny went on hiatus – stopping in March and, in some cases, not restarting again until September or October. We recognise the unprecedented nature of the crisis but this lengthy pause is difficult to justify – even if councillors were kept updated on council activity through informal means. We commented on this issue in more detail in our publication looking at this specific issue last August.
In this context it is perhaps unsurprising that those councils where scrutiny made least impact during the pandemic seems to be those with ineffective scrutiny in other areas, and where there is a poor level of organisational commitment to scrutiny in general.
The general effectiveness of scrutiny across the country continues to improve, albeit tentatively. More councils are monitoring their recommendations better, although from a low base.
On average 62% of recommendations made by scrutiny go on to be accepted and implemented – a slight dip, although here we are subject to the vagaries of what our councils’ leaderships decide they want to do or not do. This accounts for one part of our overall measure of effectiveness, which this year encompasses those councils where:
- At least 70% of scrutiny recommendations have been accepted and implemented in the past three years;
- Respondents to the survey cite, in their authority, a constructive relationship between the executive and scrutiny;
- Respondents to the survey consider that scrutiny has a positive impact.
(We should say that we have asked respondents to set out what they consider the positive impacts of scrutiny to have been – and we will continue to highlight those through our “Scrutiny frontiers” publication, and throughout the year on our blog).
We continue to try to establish what “makes” for the kind of effective scrutiny we describe above. It is a combination of factors – backed up by the work that we did on our “governance risk and resilience framework”.
Councils with effective scrutiny are generally also those where:
- There is a protocol in place between scrutiny and the executive, or one is planned shortly (as recommended in the 2019 scrutiny guidance);
- The Monitoring Officer is part of the council’s Corporate Management Team;
- Chairing positions are shared between parties, or at least are not all held by the majority party;
- Information is shared systematically with councillors outside committee, for example by way of an information digest (as recommended in the 2019 scrutiny guidance);
What doesn’t really make much of a difference to the effectiveness of scrutiny is the structure and number of scrutiny committees.
Given the nature of the survey exercise and the size of the sample we are cautious about drawing a direct causative link between the above factors and effective scrutiny overall, but they are features that we will continue to explore.
What councils should now do
As ever (and as we have written elsewhere) the leadership of authorities need to do more to support and bolster scrutiny. CMTs and Cabinets should reflect, urgently, on whether they are doing what they need to in supporting scrutiny. This should involve proactive work in understanding what councillors’ motivations are, and how scrutiny’s role is set out. You can read more here about what we think the future holds for local governance, and how we might innovate to get there.