What makes for effective scrutiny? Excerpt from the CfGS Annual Survey 2021

Posted on 29/07/2022 by Ed Hammond.

Read below the Executive Summary from our Annual Survey 2021. The full version will be published soon. 

What makes for effective scrutiny?

  • Dedicated officer resourcing (this is the factor for which we have the strongest evidence).
  • Member training (which is of a high quality and integrated into councillors’ ongoing work).
  • A positive relationship between scrutiny and the executive – driven by a clear understanding of scrutiny’s role and responsibilities.
  • Timely access to proportionate, high-quality information.
  • Cross-party chairing (or, failing that, good cross-party relationships between scrutiny members).

If this seems familiar, it should. These are components that we know individually and collectively contribute to more effective scrutiny in local authorities, and that we can demonstrate having done so since we started using our current methodology to conduct this survey in 2012.

What, then, are the current strengths and weaknesses for scrutiny?

  • Scrutiny continues to struggle with meaningful public engagement.
  • Scrutiny in financial matters (and commercial matters) is seen as an area of weakness, possibly because the intersection between the audit and scrutiny roles is poorly understood.
  • Scrutiny councillors’ understanding of corporate and service risks could be better.
  • Many respondents do not feel especially positive about the future of scrutiny.

But…

  • Approaches to work programming, and to the access of and use of information, are improving.
  • Relationships with council executives, while not fantastic overall, are improving, and relationships between scrutiny and senior council officers appear to be strengthening particularly well.
  • Attitudes towards member training and development, and support, are positive, even if the officer resourcing position for scrutiny remains fragile.
  • There is a clearer understanding in many councils of *what* improvement looks like, and the kind of steps necessary to deliver it.

This could all be seen as painting a fairly gloomy picture of scrutiny, it’s strengths, weaknesses and prospects for improvement. It may do, but for many councils’ improvement is a matter of minor reform – not wholesale transformation. Most councils are no longer able to employ a phalanx of scrutiny officers, but even so there are practical changes that can be made to work programming, access to information and the development of recommendations – amongst other things – that we know would have a material impact.

You can read more advice on the components of effective scrutiny in “The good scrutiny guide” (CfGS, 2019)

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.