BLOG: Fitting scrutiny into the local assurance framework
Councils are responsible for their own performance and improvement. At a local level scrutiny provides an important contribution to this work – holding to account, challenging and supporting councils to ensure that they are delivering what local people need.
But how does scrutiny fit in with the other actors – local and national – who share a responsibility for assuring services, and which support councils’ ability to work effectively?
At the moment, the LGA is carrying out work to map the various individuals, groups and organisations that provide this assurance, and to demonstrate how they all fit together. They are consulting on this work at the moment – you can respond at https://forms.office.com/pages/responsepage.aspx?id=7uRi4U8FPEuNOXVSTKjy6Vn7pcJssRZMmltVLHExd45URjFZQTNXV0dBNEUyMUNSOVBOSVExV1dDRS4u, and you can read some of the context for the LGA’s work at https://www.local.gov.uk/our-support/council-assurance-and-peer-support/improvement-and-assurance-framework-local-government.
We’d like to encourage scrutiny colleagues to respond to this consultation, because they are likely to have some unique insights on the operation of these systems at a local level.
But we are also keen to see scrutiny colleagues thinking about their own role in the assurance framework – and how they can support a more joined up approach to accountability, and good governance, at local level.
One of the challenges of effective assurance is the complexity of these systems – the fact that there are a lot of people (at local level, particularly) with overlapping duties, roles and responsibilities. This overlap can be a good thing – it makes the system more resilient, and supports collaboration. But it can also mean that important things “fall between the gaps”.
We see this in respect of things like financial oversight, where the audit committee, scrutiny committees, Council and Cabinet all play a range of overlapping roles.
Scrutiny’s broad remit to look at anything affecting the area or the area’s inhabitants could give it a unique role to seek out these gaps, to highlight their existence and where necessary to fill them. What could this look like in practice?
- Scrutiny’s work on performance, keeping a “watching brief” over local services (which may include services not directly delivered by the council) provide a useful backstop to existing management systems.
- Scrutiny’s liaison with the Audit Committee on emerging risks, using Audit’s insight to select matters for further investigation where particular risks exist – we will expand on this role in a publication due for release in March 2024;
- Scrutiny oversight of corporate complaints – a subject on which we are commenting in a separate blog due for publication in early 2024. By looking at how complaints are handled, scrutiny can identify where systemic issues might exist that have not been identified or acted on;
- Where external bodies investigate and inspect the council – Ofsted, or the CQC, for example – scrutiny can seek to hold to account the council’s commitment to change. Particularly where external inspectors make adverse judgements on the council’s performance, scrutiny’s presence as a member-led body can knit together improvement in what might otherwise be a complex and difficult operating environment;
- Scrutiny can support learning from other parts of the system – bringing in evidence from other councils and from national bodies to ensure that lessons around assurance, accountability and good governance from the wider sector are understood and addressed. The LGA’s LG Inform service, for example, provides insight to support this work – scrutiny can also look at the outcomes from their own council’s corporate peer challenges (carried out by the LGA) to understand the learning that the council is taking from those exercises.
In order to be able to do some, or all, of these duties, scrutiny’s role needs to be well understood – and this is where challenges exist. Although we can talk about an overall “assurance framework” in general terms – that is, in terms of the key duties and accountabilities of essential parts of the governance system – at a local level, every council’s approach is different. This is particularly the case with scrutiny. Because it is a member-led function, the focus and priorities of scrutiny derive from the priorities of the members sitting on it at any given council and at any given time. It makes it difficult for us to say, conclusively and nationally, “this is the role that scrutiny performs as part of the assurance framework”.
In a way, this is a good thing. Different councils work in different ways and scrutiny has the flexibility to mould its operations to those differences in a way that helps it to really add value. In one place, a council may be facing real and significant financial challenges, and the scrutiny function may be working closely with the Audit Committee to bring rigour to future financial plans. In another, service weaknesses may have provoked scrutiny to focus its efforts on review and oversight of transformation – perhaps by working in conjunction with Cabinet to ensure that there is member visibility (in public) on changes being made to services, where those changes might be particularly controversial and high profile.
Somewhere else, scrutiny might want to bring rigour to the management of a council exposed to significant commercial activity by having particular regard to its role in company governance.
These are all tasks that will be necessary more in some councils than others. Scrutiny’s inherent flexibility means that it can tackle them in the way best suited to the needs of its own area.
In another way, however, this is of course not a good thing. Where scrutiny looks very different from council to council, it is increasingly difficult to talk about what good should look like – it is difficult to determine whether scrutiny is playing the role in assurance that it ought to be. The need for flexibility may result in scrutiny being idiosyncratic – failing to apply good practice learned from elsewhere, and failing to play the active role in assurance that we know it needs to.
Documents like the Government’s recently-produced Scrutiny Protocol – designed for combined authorities – point us towards the second of these conclusions. It suggests a much more directive, national framework for how scrutiny may operate in future. Consistency and standards are important, of course. But how generic, and arbitrary, might they be when they come up against local circumstances?
These are deep questions. We will be trying to answer some of them ourselves. But we also want to make sure that scrutiny practitioners’ voices are represented in the LGA’s ongoing work on the assurance framework so that your own views and answers have an influence. What do you think scrutiny is here to do – how should it go about doing it? Is it able to do that job now – if not, does it have that potential in the future?
We look forward to responding ourselves, and to learning how the work progresses in the coming months.
This material has been produced with funding from HM Government