Annual scrutiny survey results: scrutiny and cultural change – part 2
In our previous blog dedicated to the annual scrutiny survey 2017 results (key statistics and infographics available here) we shared our ideas on scrutiny’s role and various methods of agenda prioritisation. In this blog, we would like to discuss two other outstanding issues – cultural change, and how can scrutiny show its impact and value.
Starting with the latter, scrutiny can change perceptions around its work and be able to easier demonstrate its value through at least two channels – through changing recommendations and their continuous tracking and through a different approach to annual scrutiny reports. In our previous research, we noted that not every council has a system of recommendation tracking. While it is possible to go overboard with this kind of thing – we do not advocate bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake – we cannot understate the importance of basic things like being able to keep tabs on recommendations made by the scrutiny function (even by using something as straightforward as an Excel spreadsheet. It goes without saying that scrutiny always benefits more from meaningful, substantive recommendations (particularly at committee), rather than recommending that an issue or report be “noted”.
Which brings us to the subject of annual scrutiny reports. In our analysis, we noticed that too often, annual reports by scrutiny (often reported to full Council) focused on the process of scrutiny rather than on the result that it achieved. Many annual scrutiny reports contain information about the number of meetings, visits to communities, and even agenda items deliberated, while rarely discussing the change that scrutiny helped facilitate. This is not of course a universal problem – there are many examples of good practice, and CfGS will begin to share some of these over the summer.
A more targeted approach to annual reports makes scrutiny more focused and allows the scrutiny function to display the real value it adds to the council, which may also help build trust in the function and can improve its standing as well. For more on showing the social value of scrutiny you can read CfGS publication Social Return on Investment. Back in 2011 we published a piece of research specifically on annual reports called “The lion that roared” – some of the context of that report is out of date but its general principles are still valid.
Finally, a few words about organisational culture. Our recent survey found that 71.6% feel that organisational culture in their authority is positive or generally positive, which is an increase of 20% from the previous year. By “organisational culture” we mean the esteem in which scrutiny is held – the existence of a culture that welcomes constructive challenge, a culture that is open and transparent. These are tough behaviours to build and maintain in the best of times, so it’s positive to see that most respondents felt that such approaches were dominant in their own councils.
These figures augur well, but maintaining a positive and open culture of scrutiny requires commitments from people beyond scrutiny. Building relationships requires a clear and unambiguous commitment from the executive, going beyond mere tolerance of scrutiny and its work.
One of the approaches that CfGS has been regularly advocating is to start building more informal relationships between scrutiny and officers along with the Executive. Informal relationships include having more informational/discussion meetings outside of the context of formal scrutiny committee meetings, including asking to be included in early conversations about certain decisions simply to raise awareness on the matters. It also means using scrutiny’s power of persuasion which can help influence and change decisions earlier in the process, without going through call-in or other formal procedures. We know that scrutiny officers and members alike often struggle hard to make the case at local level – that people would love to have these kinds of productive conversations but that the willingness can often not be there on the other side. We are, in the coming year, talking to some of our partners at national level to explore whether there is something that we can do about this. We would also be keen to understand how we can support local practitioners in breaking down some of these barriers – something we have been doing practically for an increasing number of councils in recent months.
There are numerous other cultural challenges that were mentioned by survey participants and that deserve attention, however, without solving the key four it would be hard to move forward. If your council has an experience of changing relationships between scrutiny and Executive from negative to positive, or if your council uses an alternative method of estimating scrutiny value, we are keen to hear from you.