BLOG: Engaging with the outcome of peer review to inform improvement

Posted on 01/02/2024 by Ed Hammond.

All councils in England are entitled – and, in fact, expected – to take advantage of the offer from the Local Government Association to undergo an external review, led by a group of officer and members from outside the councils.

“Corporate peer challenge” (CPC), as it is more officially known, is one of a number of peer-led assurance techniques offered by the LGA as part of its wider sector improvement offer. It is however the most high profile. We wanted to share a little more with you about how these exercises are undertaken, and how scrutiny’s work can be informed by their outcomes.

You can find a general introduction to the LGA’s CPC offer here.

A CPC covers the following five areas (as well as one or two other issues which may be priorities for the council):

  1. Local priorities and outcomes
  2. Organisational and place leadership
  3. Governance and culture 
  4. Financial planning and management 
  5. Capacity for improvement.

A CPC is carried out at the invitation of the authority concerned. It is intended to be a supportive, but challenging, process unlike a formal “inspection”. CPCs do not result in councils receiving a “grade” or score. And, finally, peers are just that – local government officers and elected members who have usually gone through the process themselves and who have given up their time to support others to improve.

When a council agrees with the LGA a date for its CPC, the LGA will assign a staff member to manage the work and will assemble a team. The composition of the team will depend on the council (peer teams will usually be composed in such a way that brings in people with experience of working at similar authorities). The council will pull together a set of documentation to support the team to understand the authority and its context, and will also produce a self-assessment.

There is something that scrutiny can do here in ensuring that the council is ready for a CPC. While we wouldn’t expect that a self-assessment be “cleared” by scrutiny, or that the preparation for a CPC should be overseen by the scrutiny function in detail, it may be sensible for relevant scrutiny chairs to be kept in the loop on the process – particularly to ensure that scrutiny can prepare for any involvement after the CPC has finished. Doing this can also help the council as a whole to understand:

  • Why we are doing this. The council should have a sense of the value of the exercise and a plan for how it will maximise this value;
  • Whether we understand what our strengths and weaknesses are. CPC provides a way to ensure that the council has a reliable and candid sense of where improvement is necessary;
  • Why we are asking the CPC to concentrate on specific issues or areas – councils may invite the peer team to focus on particular local matters, and if this is the case it’s important that the rationale for this is understood;
  • How we anticipate the learning from the CPC having an impact on the way that we do business, now and in the future.

For the CPC itself, the peer team will be on-site for an intensive two to four day period, during which activity will be dominated by face-to-face interviews and focus groups. The team will divide their time to maximise the number of people they can speak to, and will come together through the day to triangulate their findings. On the final morning the peer team will work together to come up with some headline findings and recommendations which are “played back” to the council in person at lunchtime – usually by way of a presentation to senior officer and member leaders.

After the peer team has left, the LGA will lead on the preparation of a final report. You can find a list of all of these here. There is an expectation that councils will publish this report once it has received it.  The council is also expected to publish their action plan in response to the CPC report, and the peer team will return around ten months after their initial visit to conduct a progress review.

Because scrutiny is an important part of the governance framework, CPCs will usually consider its effectiveness. The peer team will often speak to scrutiny chairs (and other members), and may speak to officers involved in scrutiny as well.

Scrutiny should play an important role in supporting councils to tackle issues which CPCs have raised. This is likely to include review of the council’s initial plans for action.

But scrutiny really ought to come into its own by supporting the council to wring as much value out of the CPC exercise as it can – by following up and challenging the council to act on the CPC’s findings on a more long-term basis.  

Scrutiny can:

  • Dig further into some of the issues raised by the CPC. The report itself will not provide all the answers, and there may be more that scrutiny members can do to understand the scale and nature of any issues and problems that have been uncovered. For example, scrutiny can ask:
    • Before we move to identify solutions, are we sure that we fully understand the problem or problems that the CPC may have brought to our attention?
    • Where a CPC has highlighted good performance or good practice, what are we doing to make sure the rest of the organisation is learning the right lessons from this?
    • Who are some of the key stakeholders – within and beyond the council – who will need to work together to tackle any problems that have been identified?
    • How do any problems and issues impact on the way that we work in general? The CPC may, for example, have highlighted particular issues about a given service, or a certain way that the council works – but there may be wider implications to this;
  • Subject improvement plans to challenge. The council will have its own plans for how it wants to act on the CPC recommendations, which will need to be scrutinised. Questions might include:
    • What are we doing to share these findings – and what they mean for the way that we work – with the wider organisation?
    • Is the council using a traditional “action plan”-type method to effect change in response to the CPC, or is it taking a different approach? Seeing response to the CPC as a “project” with actions that can be taken forward, and ticked off, is a tempting way to respond to the exercise, but can also risk reducing that response down to the level of making changes to structure and process. Overall, there’s a risk of eliding the need for the response to be “whole council” in nature. Are we sure that our plans take this into account?
    • Are our plans realistic? Are they owned by the right people? Do we know what success will look like?
  • Identify where and how it can take responsibility for improvement itself. Sometimes, CPCs can suggest ways for scrutiny to improve, or ways for wider member activity and relationships to be enhanced. Scrutiny has a role in proactively contributing to that process. For example:
    • Scrutiny may need to take action to refocus and reprioritise its work;
    • Scrutiny may need to work better with other bodies – audit, for example;
    • Scrutiny may need to improve the way that it oversees the authority’s finances;
    • Conduct and behaviours in meetings may need to be addressed.

More than anything else, scrutiny can help to address the cultural and behavioural challenges that may impact on a council’s ability to respond productively to a CPC. Sometimes, when external judgements are critical, it can provoke defensiveness – or a perfunctory response. This response may not be common to everyone across the council, but may limit the council’s ability to act fully to improve.

In 2021 we produced a “governance risk and resilience framework” which we think can be of use to ensure that this need for cultural change can be front and centre, when it needs to be. We think that the framework can be of use for councils preparing for CPCs – ensuring that there is an accurate sense of the council’s strengths and weaknesses on governance particularly. But it can also be useful in helping the council to understand the wider context of change once the CPC has happened. It can help the council to ask and answer questions like: what might the cultural barriers be that prevent us from improving? Or: what behaviours and relationships do we need to have in place to ensure that improvement is really happening?

We know that scrutiny in many councils do take information updates following CPC exercises but would be interested to learn more about the experiences of scrutiny functions where committees have used the CPC as a jumping-off point for the wider work we’ve talked about in this post. And, of course, we’re also keen to hear about other examples of scrutiny engaging with the CPC process.

This material has been produced with funding from HM Government




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.