Conducting remote scrutiny reviews
In our first guest blog of the year, Catherine Buckley from Knowsley Council explains how one scrutiny committee organised and undertook its first entirely remote task and finish review.
Knowsley Council’s Children Scrutiny Committee kick-started their scrutiny year with a virtual workplanning session in June 2020 and voted for ‘Early Help and Parental Support’ as the topic for their in-depth review. At the time of the workplanning session we weren’t sure how the situation with COVID-19 would evolve, and had envisaged (naively) that by the time of the review in November we would be back to meeting in person and that the committee would be able to get out and about in the community to gather additional evidence. How wrong we were!
At our second virtual committee meeting of the year in September 2020, Members further scoped out the review and it was clear then, due to rising number of cases of COVID-19, that the review would need to take place completely remotely. Members had opted to use the ‘review in a day’ methodology, whereby all the evidence sessions take place over the course of one day with some options to gather additional evidence built in beforehand.
As a supporting officer this was quite a daunting task and there were a lot of things to plan for and consider. Using the scope as a starting point, work took place to structure the day. The starting point was as it always is – what did the committee want to explore and how could we make that happen? Making it happen remotely was the daunting part.
Since lockdown we had used Cisco Webex for all our live streamed Council meetings, so we planned to use the same system. Although it wasn’t a public meeting, it was the platform that officers and committee members were already familiar with, so it was hoped that this would keep technical issues to a minimum.
The committee were sent a pack of background information before the day, which had the running order and detail on what would happen at each session, along with information about Early Help and Parental Support in Knowsley. This was sent in hard copy so that the committee could keep it to hand during the day itself, as when working from home many people are using just a small laptop screen and it can be tricky to refer to information on screen whilst using the same screen to participate in the meeting.
The committee also had the option to take part in additional evidence gathering activities prior to the review day. The first was to observe a support group for women who had survived domestic abuse and there were two further sessions for Members to observe how partners worked together to support families. One of these was lower support and the other was an example of more intensive support. These were all remote sessions due to the situation with COVID-19. The Members who had attended these then fed back the learning into the review day.
The day itself was split into four sessions which were a mixture of focus groups and information giving. There was a final session at the end of the day that looked to pull all the learning back together and for the committee to draft their recommendations. We also built in longer breaks to allow everyone to be able to spend time away from their screens and relax. Our day ran from 9.45 to 15.30 which felt just right. Energy levels were plummeting by the afternoon and a longer day would have been too much.
All in all, the review was a great success. It was hard work and intensive to make happen but also very worthwhile and the committee made eight detailed recommendations which have now been taken to Cabinet.
I thought it might be helpful to share the key learning points if you are planning your own remote review.
- Build in long breaks. It is inevitable that some sessions will overrun and eat into your allotted time for breaks. Due to witnesses being held in virtual waiting rooms you can’t really start sessions later than planned and all our breaks ended up being shorter than we would have liked.
- Think of ways to mix up the information giving. Short video clips or sound bites from people. We also held a quiz to reinforce some of the messages and used the polling function to get responses.
- Circulate as much of the data/background information as you can beforehand. This frees up time in the session for conversation and discussion and minimises the risk of ‘death by PowerPoint’
- Test the technology with all external witnesses beforehand. Issues with audio/video can be frustrating for everyone and will eat into the time.
- Have support ‘behind the scenes’. We had someone on-hand at certain points in the day to assist external witnesses should they need it.
- Provide summaries at the end of each evidence session. This was vital in assisting the committee at the final session of the day, and helped to focus in on what had been learnt.
The full review report can be viewed by clicking here.
If you want to find out more, you can get in contact with Catherine via email: Catherine.Buckley@knowsley.gov.uk