Avoiding the risk of overload: focusing on business critical issues

Posted on 17/11/2020 by Ed Hammond.

For most scrutineers, the pace does not seem to have let up since March. Over the spring and summer scrutiny was constrained in the amount of formal work it could do – but that didn’t mean that nothing was happening. Now, the pressure is even more significant. For many councils a full suite of committee meetings has now resumed – albeit remotely – and the need to do more work, and quickly, is more urgently felt than ever.

The continuing pandemic, the huge financial challenge, and the shift that both of these have demanded of every service – this has all created a huge range of possible areas of focus for scrutiny in the coming months. In many councils further major changes are in the works which will have a profound impact on local communities.

This places scrutiny in a seemingly impossible position. There is too much important stuff to look at. But the resource to carry out that work is at best static; at worst it may have shrunk in recent months, and that shrinking may continue.

The temptation, always, is to seek to up the volume of work. An additional task and finish group. Six meetings a year instead of four; eight instead of six. A sub-committee or standing panel to look solely at financial issues. More frequent member briefings.

There’ll always be a compelling justification for this work – a pressing need that scrutiny can fill. But we can’t ignore the unsustainability of keeping up this tempo for ever. Staff are stretched across the council, with the operational response still in full flow as we sit here in the middle of the second lockdown period. The pressures on members, too, are substantial. We have to think afresh about the need to prioritise, and we have to continue to be self-critical when we think that the answer is to just do more work, and more quickly.

Recently we’ve published a new guide on work programming which – we hope – will allow you to tease out these challenges. Now has to be the time to apply more rigorous judgement about those topics where scrutiny can, and can’t, make an impact – and to think differently about the way that we work.

For example, the fast pace of working will – we suspect – make longer task and finish projects a tough prospect right now, to say nothing of how resource intensive such work can be. The cross-cutting nature of many of the challenges that councils face right now also, we think, work against the pressure to return too soon to a full spectrum of formal meetings for those councils with multiple scrutiny committees.

You’ll recall that in the spring we suggested that councils adopt a streamlined structure – focusing formal activity on a single committee to view council challenges through the lens of the pandemic response. The idea of this was to ensure that scrutiny was able to zero in on business critical activity – highly important and short term matters which affected the council’s ability to deliver services in-year.

For most councils the uncertainty of the pandemic and its local impacts means that a resolute focus on these critical matters – the matters which present the most risk to the authority and its ability to deliver for local people – must remain.

This is likely to continue to mean fewer meetings and fewer items on agendas, which itself means making some tough calls on those matters which scrutiny does, and doesn’t, look at formally.

We do have some thoughts about what areas on which you might focus in the next few months.

  • A short term focus on systemic risks. What are most urgent and significant challenges facing the authority and the area – and how are the risks associated with those challenges being mitigated? For many, finances will be a dominant issue here. For unitary and shire county councils this will have knock-on impacts on children’s services and adult social care, for example. Risks associated with organisational capacity may be another matter on which members will need to focus. This is likely to need to be the focus between now and the end of the financial year, or the end of the municipal year.
  • A medium term focus on policy development for the recovery. Recovery plans will be being brought together at some speed – although the focus will at the moment remain on managing in-year pressures. Even as this happens we do need to keep one eye on the steps we will need to take to support communities to recover, starting now but ramping up significantly in spring and summer next year. What is the approach the council is taking to support the local economy, the local community and local infrastructure more generally; who’s involved, who’ll deliver and what gives us confidence that these plans will work? Rather than delving into the substantive detail of recovery plans across the board (doing so in a few key services may of course be necessary) scrutiny can interrogate the underlying assumptions relating to recovery planning across the piece – drawing on evidence on risk, finances and so on gleaned from studying the issues under the first bullet point above. This is likely to need to be the focus when the end of the pandemic is more clearly in sight – perhaps as we enter next spring, and we can begin to have a little more confidence in what the road ahead looks like.

As always, doing this properly rests on having access to the right information, and at the right time, to make sure the business critical issues you’ve identified are the right ones – our work programming guide goes into this in more detail. Crucially, member access to information needs to be something which happens away from, but supportive of, formal business in committee. 

This approach may not be for everyone. But if you’ve any doubt about where the next steps for scrutiny might lie, you might want to use this as a jumping off point. As you do so, we’re always here to help. We’re happy to drop into committee meetings to contribute to conversations about work programming or to have informal conversations with members or officers about it. And support also exists from other sources; if you’re an officer, for example, membership of ADSO will be of particular use at the moment, giving you the opportunity to speak to and share notes with your peers. Don’t forget too that our friend Dr Dave McKenna runs a regular meetup for scrutiny officers and members which is a great way to network and share ideas in these atomised times – you can find more information here – https://scrutinymeetup.publicgov.co.uk/

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.