BLOG: Tackling the big stuff- tips for helping scrutiny make a meaningful contribution to the most complex political debates, by Mark Egan (Associate, CfGS)
One of the benefits of scrutiny work is in being able to examine and report authoritatively on the issues which most affect people in their everyday lives. Being at the heart of the political action can be challenging, as issues which are polarised in party terms are not fruitful ground for effective scrutiny, but it’s far better to be investigating the things which matter to people than issues of tangential relevance.
At the moment, there’s no doubt that the cost of living crisis is the main national talking point. It dominates news coverage, whether it’s the rate of inflation, wage claims and strikes, mortgage costs, fuel, energy bills, the impact on retail, and government spending. Wherever you turn, there’s a new angle on the topic.
In principle the cost of living should be at the heart of scrutiny work in 2023, but what would such work look like? The all-encompassing scope of the problem is a huge challenge to scrutiny. Not only does the cost of living pervade many areas of national life, the causes of the crisis are complex and contested. Is it all due to the war in Ukraine and the global effects of the pandemic, in which case all government can do is hang in there and cope? Or are political decisions – on Brexit and domestic public spending – part of the problem?
Before embarking on work in this area, scrutiny committees need to think carefully about a number of factors:
Scope – can the committee find an aspect of the crisis to investigate, while acknowledging that it cannot tackle every element of the problem. If a committee wants broad terms of reference, can the separate themes be identified and sequenced, to avoid overload?
Timescale – a long inquiry can be overwhelming for politicians and staff alike and by the end of the process the evidence gathered at the start can be out of date. Better to have a series of shorter inquiries as part of a broader theme than try to tackle everything in one go. Be aware of the timescales decision-makers are working to. There’s no point in making recommendations about how funding should be allocated after the key decisions have been taken.
Terms of reference – committees should put a great deal of thought into the specific questions they want answered, to avoid inquiries drifting into banality and platitudes. Look carefully at responsibilities, particularly statutory ones, and specific decisions. Find out what is happening now, rather than the aspirations for service delivery in two or three years. If a committee wants to look at what is being planned, try to pin decision-makers down to specific dates, so progress can be effectively followed up.
Recommendations – the key strength of any scrutiny system is in being able to make authoritative evidence-based recommendations which decision-makers are obliged to respond to. Committees (and staff) should be thinking from the start about what sort of recommendations they could make in relation to an issue. These must be hard-hitting, forcing decision-makers to consider whether they should be acting differently. Recommendations asking decision-makers to “consider” or “take note” of things will invariably be accepted as they are, essentially, meaningless.
If scrutiny work on the cost of living crisis is well planned from the start it will have an impact, in terms of influencing decision-makers and affecting outcomes. Also, importantly, good scrutiny work shines a light on how power is being exercised and the real reasons for decisions. This is crucial for enhancing much-needed confidence in our democracy. When politics is buffeted by forces which appear to be out of our control, disengagement and cynicism naturally build. Why bother voting or engaging with politics in other ways if our local and national leaders are powerless, or tell us that there is nothing they can do to make people’s lives better? Good scrutiny work can show where politics does make a difference and how different choices can lead to different outcomes. We need it now more than ever.
By Mark Egan