Blog: Political culture: understanding the mutual motivations of scrutineers and the executive

Posted on 11/02/2020 by Ed Hammond. Tags:

In my last blog I talked in general terms about the attitude and approach of the executive, and what makes for good political leadership. In this blog, the second in a series of five on political culture, I will go into more detail on the mutual motivations of scrutineers and the executive. What makes people tick? How do disagreements arise, and how can they be resolved?

This is an issue that many councils have sought to resolve with things like member/officer (and executive/scrutiny) protocols. These documents attempt to systematise the working relationship, but often focus on compliance with processes rather than providing an opportunity to understand how the differing motivations of scrutiny and the executive can lead to tension.

So, what are these motivations? And how can they work alongside and, occasionally, against each other?

The executive leadership of a council will be driven by a need to implement its political priorities. In the case of a council under no overall control, this need can be overlaid by one about assuring political stability – at least, until the next local election. The fragility of coalitions (or of councils operating under minority control) can make political priorities more muddled, or more short term in nature.

The motivations of an executive will also be more prosaic – about avoiding political embarrassment, about presenting themselves as effective leaders of the local place (which may include influencing partners) and occasionally about enhancing the personal profile of leading councillors.

Some executives may also be preoccupied by the sense of a need to assert, and project, a sense of control over authority business.

All of these features – and others – have the potential to result in tension with scrutiny.

Scrutiny’s motivations may often overlap with those of the executive but will present themselves in a different way.

For a start, those motivations can often feel quite fragmented. In a council where there is not a clear, defined role for scrutiny – one which is well-articulated (we talked about this a lot in “The Good Scrutiny Guide”, published last year, and the guidance makes a thing of it as well) the motivations and interests of individual members can take precedence, in a way that leads to frustration and confusion.

On those matters where scrutiny’s role is, in fact, agreed and settled, tension is still possible. Ask a councillor (or a scrutiny officer) what scrutiny’s job is and you will usually get the answer that it is about holding the executive to account, providing a check and balance, and so on. This is of course accurate but these words will mean different things to members on the executive to members on scrutiny. In particular, the level of robustness of scrutiny may well be a subject of disagreement. One person’s robust, forensic scrutiny is another’s series of baseless political attacks. This isn’t so much about people engaging in the process in bad faith – it is more about the expectations around behaviour not having been made clear.

Scrutiny will want to support improvement but this can only happen in co-operation with the executive. Scrutiny can only recommend – it can’t force anything to happen or not happen. So some mutual understanding and dialogue is necessary for things to work well. Scrutiny can be adversarial and can look forensic, but without that understanding it will be essentially toothless.

This does not involve “nobbling” scrutiny by agreeing things through back channels beforehand, but just this mutual understanding of differing motivations, and a commitment to identifying where dispute and disagreement is likely to occur so as to neutralise its worst effects. It will be right that scrutiny seeks to investigate controversial or contentious topics – but how can it do so in a way that will be productive for an executive looking for answers? Scrutiny may want to vigorously question an external provider whose services fall below the standards expected – how can this work be aligned with similar attempts being made by the executive? Scrutiny may simply want to know and understand more about a topic in order to best prioritise its resources – how can the executive understand what scrutiny’s needs are to ensure that this can happen?

These are the kinds of questions that a good executive/scrutiny protocol can help to answer. Really, such protocols are about starting a process of dialogue, and providing a framework within which that dialogue can continue. Relationships are dynamic – a static protocol which sets out expectations in minute detail won’t hep with this. One which sets expectations of behaviour and engagement, and provides for a “no surprises” approach on both sides, will allow conversation to develop and provide a safety valve for more complex issues.

The development of an executive/scrutiny protocol is suggested in the statutory scrutiny guidance published in 2019. Because of growing interest in this approach, we are planning to collate interesting examples of such protocols, both in development and in practice. If you think your council presents an interesting example, please get in touch.

Our next blog post in this series will look at understanding and managing party politics, expanding on themes we talked about in the first in the series.



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.