BLOG: Councillors’ use of information
This week (w/c 11 December 2023) we’re publishing a piece of guidance for councillors on their rights to access information. These vital rights are important for councillors to understand (and for councils to act on). Just as important, though, is the need to be able to use information once you have it. This (long) blogpost is designed to provide advice on that second issue.
How to use information in general
Turning a critical eye to the information you have at your disposal helps you to understand what it does, and doesn’t, say. It helps, too, to be able to avoid taking that information at face value.
There are some key questions whose answers can help you to understand what weight and credence information should be given.
- How can I contextualise this information? Is there other information which I can bring together that will give me a better holistic view of this issue? It is important not to see single documents, or sources of information, in isolation. Certain documents may make reference to important background information that you will need to read too, in order to understand;
- For what purpose was this information originally created? Some information – like officer reports – may have been created for a specific member audience, but some may not have been. Understanding what the original purpose of the material is, and understanding your own motivation in accessing it, will help to understand if it tells you what you need to know;
- What does this information tell me, and not tell me? What assumptions am I making when reading it? It is easy – and dangerous – to make mental shortcuts when reading complex and dense material – to make assumptions about what it does and doesn’t say. Close, methodical reading is important;
- What conclusions can I draw from this information? The conclusions may be:
- Substantive, relating to the content of the information. You may conclude that a service delivered by the council is being delivered well, or poorly;
- Textual, relating to how the information is presented and the form it takes. You may conclude that it is of poor quality, or unreliable, especially when comparing it to other, similar information;
- What further questions do I need to ask? The information may suggest questions that can be asked – informally, or formally at a committee meeting. These may be questions to gain clarity, or questions to find out something specific – what actions are being taken to mitigate an emerging risk, or how evidence was weighted to inform a particular policy choice.
How to use management information
“Management” information is the kind of information that councils regularly produce that provides insight into how services are being delivered right now. Performance scorecards, finance outturns (and in-year budget and finance plans), and risk registers form part of this information. Programme and project monitoring information, and information that the council might get from aggregated complaints data, can also add richness and detailed to this information.
In previous material (for example, the “Good scrutiny guide” (2019)) CfGS has suggested to councils that they put in place arrangements to regularly share information with councillors that will help them to understand how the authority is run.
We have previously described this material as an “information digest”, but it does not need to be a single document, or a set of material “curated” or drafted especially for a councillor audience. Importantly, making this information available to councillors should not involve the spending of additional resources, but should help to give you more of an active sense of what is going on.
What information is made available on a regular basis is likely to be the subject of local agreement. However, as we have noted above, at its most basic level it is likely to include:
- performance information,
- financial information and
- information relating to risk.
This is information that will be produced at least quarterly, and sometimes more frequently. It may be produced and provided in a way that is quite technical, and you should be offered training and support to understand it to the extent that, in due course, you should be able to interrogate and understand it independently.
(You shouldn’t expect to be able to understand this data automatically, or to feel inadequate that you can’t do so. This material is produced by professionals for other professionals, usually not for a lay audience. It is entirely legitimate for it to be difficult to understand when you first encounter it).
Why you should avoid bringing management information directly to committee
Bringing management information directly to committee can lead to poor scrutiny.
There are several key reasons for this:
- By the time you bring it to committee, it is likely to be heavily out of date. The validation of performance and finance data, for example, takes time, and when committees only meet four times a year this may mean that you are considering data more than a full quarter after it was produced;
- It is likely to duplicate activity undertaken elsewhere. Cabinet, and Audit, are particular formal spaces where a range of management information is considered. There is a risk that looking at these issues again in scrutiny committees adds little value;
- It divorces performance, finance and risk issues (and other service matters) from the rest of your scrutiny work programme. This information does not exist in isolation, and there is potentially power in being able to use management information to contextualise officer reports on a range of matters.
Instead, there are several purposes for which you can use this information:
- To hold a watching brief over service delivery;
- To set the work programme;
- To frame questioning, in committee and in task and finish groups;
- To formulate recommendations.
To hold a watching brief over service delivery
Ongoing service delivery is complex. As a councillor you will want to be able to “keep an eye” on things in a manageable way, and in a way that gives you a degree of confidence that you are not missing serious and systemic issues.
Looking at management information help to give you that overall picture. Importantly, it is a picture that you can use that management information to triangulate.
For example, you may be interested in the quality of housing repairs and maintenance. You may note that performance in the service is very good; you may notice at the same time that the service is quite overspent. You may notice that the overspend is not highlighted as a risk.
You may have access to corporate complaints data which shows you that the rate of complaints amongst tenants about the housing repair service is increasing – you may be dealing with an increasing caseload in this area, dealing with your own constituents who have brought you personal stories about their experiences. Taking these things together would give you a strong steer that this issue should be “escalated” to be considered at a formal scrutiny committee meeting.
To set the scrutiny work programme
The scrutiny work programme should be informed by evidence, and real-time evidence of how services are being managed and delivered provides a powerful way of ensuring that the scrutiny function is adding value by looking at the right things at the right time.
If you have a decent watching brief over services you will have a sense of where the greatest risks and pressures lie to the way that the council and its partners do business. You can use this understanding to inform the work programme.
To frame questioning, in committee and in task and finish groups
No one source of information can provide you with a “single version of the truth”. It is dangerous to rely exclusively on officer reports to frame discussion at a committee. Having access to a spread of recent information about service delivery will provide valuable context to officer reports.
To formulate recommendations
Recommendations, where they are made by scrutiny committees, will need to be informed by evidence. Management information will allow those recommendations to be framed effectively – particularly measures of success, which can be set with reference to existing targets. An understanding of risk in a given service, and the council’s financial position, will provide a useful sense of how “ambitious” recommendations ought to be, and the kind of change and improvement that might be possible in a given area.