Councillor ‘leadership’ of the scrutiny function – what does it really mean? 

Posted on 25/06/2024 by Pandora Ellis.

Ed Hammond’s latest blog discusses the steep learning curve for new councillors post-local elections, compounded by an unexpected general election campaign, and emphasises the importance of scrutiny training to build their confidence and leadership in council functions. 

The post (local) election period always presents a very steep learning curve for new councillors. This year, it’s been lent further complexity by the fact that, within weeks of the results, we launched into an unexpected general election campaign. 

In a couple of weeks though, new members will be able to catch breath from what will have been several months of near-continual campaigning and think about their new role. 

For most new members, part of that new role will involve sitting on an overview and scrutiny committee. Aside from full Council meetings, these committees represent the first interaction with formal meetings that new councillors will have had.  

In this context it’s not a great surprise that our work we do in June and July is dominated by the provision of introductory scrutiny training for councils.  

This training is designed to provide new members with a basic grounding in the fundamentals of the scrutiny process. But it is also meant to imbue new councillors with self-confidence. It is easy to assume that – because councils are big, complex institutions – that new members ought to hang back, stay silent, “learn” about the authority and how it functions before they start to play a full role.  

Of course, this isn’t the case. Scrutiny is only possible with member leadership. This is not just the leadership of chairs, but that of all members.  

Chairs do, of course, have a vital role to play in this. They have a task in creating an environment, within and beyond the confines of formal meetings, in which the input of all members is valued and encouraged. They need to understand the unique skills and experiences of new members, that of longer-standing members, and to understand how those characteristics can be brought together to build a strong team committed to effective scrutiny. Good chairs need to model the kinds of behaviours that we consider important – in particular, the need for people to act in a way that is non-party political, and that demonstrates an independent-minded attitude.  

But beyond chairs, leadership is about members being supported to acknowledge their strengths and capabilities, and to act on them. Members have a unique, and very close, relationship, with the communities they serve. Particularly given the volume of door knocking that will have been going on recently, new members will already have a sophisticated understanding of the communities they serve. Councillors will rarely be able to go toe-to-toe with senior officers on matters of technical detail, but where they can lead is on that deep, granular understanding of local people and their needs.  

This cuts through to all aspects of the scrutiny role – the selection of items for the work programme, the design of individual meeting agendas, the approach taken towards questioning and, arguably most importantly, the content and focus of scrutiny’s recommendations. Each of these has to be built on members’ unique perspective – and be driven by members’ sense of what the priorities for the scrutiny function need to be.  

Leadership requires collaboration – and compromise. Scrutiny’s work has to be challenging, but it also has to be supportive – and in doing so, it has to engage pragmatically with the pressures and challenges that the council faces now. 

One of the best things that new members can do, in this context, is to bring their fresher perspective to the council’s understanding – and its assumptions – about where these pressures and challenges lie. New members in particular have the freedom to ask what might seem to be the “stupid questions” – questions which may challenge basic assumptions, and which therefore might be as obvious to people with more “experience”. 

We’re keen to understand how newer councillors are getting to grips with their scrutiny roles – and how longer standing members are supporting them. We’re also keen to get members’ views – and the views of officers – on what “leadership” in scrutiny means and looks like. In particular, what can, and should officers be doing to support members’ leadership? If you’d like to share your thoughts on these issues (possibly for future publication) please get in touch with us at info@cfgs.org.uk.