BLOG: Improving Scrutiny: working with our Members- by the Scrutiny Team at Essex County Council
As practitioners, we are always keen to develop and improve scrutiny here at Essex County Council, whilst also being mindful to ensure that we remain Member-led. We were, then, really pleased when our Scrutiny Board members asked us to complete a short, focussed review on the effectiveness of the function earlier this year.
By way of background, following elections held in May 2021 there had been a wholesale change to the Chairs of our four scrutiny committees as well as an influx of newly appointed members with varying degrees of experience. A full induction and briefing programme had been provided at that time, covering both an initial introduction to scrutiny and signposting onward opportunities for learning and development. After a year or so of operation the Scrutiny Board wanted to understand how things were going and if there were any opportunities for improvement.
In brief, the scope of the review was established as:
- Structure and Outcomes – how can the effectiveness of scrutiny be measured? Do the current arrangements support effective scrutiny?
- Processes – can current working methods be improved? How can a culture be developed to encourage pre-decision scrutiny?
- Visibility – how effectively is scrutiny’s work communicated and outcomes promoted?
- Member Development – do Members have the skills and knowledge to be effective scrutineers? Is there a sufficient understanding of scrutiny within the Council generally?
- The Scrutiny Board – is an enhanced coordination role needed? How should monitoring of budgets and resources be managed?
Members examined these topics over a short series of meetings, drawing on published guidance, observation of scrutiny meetings held elsewhere and a self-assessment exercise. Interviews with the Leader of the Council were also held to explore how the relationship between scrutiny and the Executive might be further enhanced. In conclusion it was found that, overall, the existing terms of reference and structure of the function were fit for purpose and allowed sufficient scope for Members to effectively hold the administration to account.
Where development areas were identified, Members felt that these could best be addressed by looking at behaviours and expectations – were scrutiny Members engaging with work planning effectively in order to make sure the right topics came forward? How could these topics best be identified? Was the right information being provided to them and if not was this being challenged? Although officers can and should be supporting Members in reaching this understanding, the Scrutiny Board were clear that ultimately the buck stopped with them, as scrutiny leaders, to embed this mindset with the members of their respective scrutiny committees.
Recommendations were identified to support this aim covering, in the main, training and development (both formal and informal) and a focus on outcomes. Members were clear that work should be outcome led. It was recognised however that scrutiny activity might not always result in a tangible change to a policy or service; gaining a greater understanding of a particular topic in order to communicate or highlight it, for example, was a perfectly valid outcome in itself. An officer from the Communications team has been asked to regularly review work programmes for matters of particular community interest for promotion, also feeding back intelligence on ‘hot topics’ for possible inclusion on work programmes. Regarding training, the Board has agreed a defined training programme for Chairs and Vice Chairs, with a further programme identified for other scrutiny committee members to ensure consistency of understanding and cement the commitment to development. Although of course such training cannot be mandated, the Board were clear that their leadership role required them to promote the benefits of training as vigorously as possible to ensure a high take up.
The Board have now agreed a targeted work programme to take forward and monitor their agreed recommendations. Whilst identifying what ‘good scrutiny’ looks like isn’t straightforward, the commitment to improvement and development from Members is clearly vital, and we as practitioners will do our absolute best to support it.
The Scrutiny Team at Essex County Council.