Headline findings of the 2023 CfGS annual survey of overview and scrutiny in local government

Posted on 27/04/2023 by Ed Hammond.

Nearly every year since 2004 CfGS has carried out an annual scrutiny survey. The intention of the exercise is to understand not only how scrutiny is carried out, but how it is perceived – both by scrutineers and those they are scrutinising.

The full findings of this year’s survey will be released in a few weeks but, for now, we wanted to share some outline, headline findings.

These findings come with one caveat. It is inevitable that those councils filling in our survey can be expected to be those with more active scrutiny functions – where officers and members are able to take the time to gather the data to support the exercise. We received 135 responses – which means that there are plenty of councils whose practices and experiences are not represented here. We therefore expect there to be an “optimism bias” in the findings – an illustration of a picture of scrutiny across England which presents it as being in, perhaps, stronger health than it may in reality be.

Despite this, there are some findings that are cheering this year.

More impact, and more monitoring of impact

Recent surveys have seen steady increases in the number of respondents reporting that their councils actively monitor the acceptance and implementation of scrutiny’s recommendations. What’s more, most of those that do (working out to 57% overall) report that 75% of recommendations are both accepted and implemented.

Financial scrutiny

Scrutiny of finances, and the budget, is improving. Just under 6% conduct now scrutiny of the budget whatsoever, and more (27%) now carry out budget scrutiny over several meetings rather than through a single “set piece” meeting in December or January. Increasingly, councils are setting up Budget Task Groups to carry out this detailed work rather than attempting to do so in committee. Not quite half responded that that the work of scrutiny has some impact on the budget.

Finally, scrutiny of finances appears less siloed. This year we have asked about whether scrutiny of general policy issues is informed by an understanding of council finances. 64% said it was.

There is still a way to go. 12% said that they were “not at all confident” that scrutiny is able to oversee matters relating to council finances; 71% said they were “somewhat confident”.

Interesting, a number of respondents highlighted that improvements made to the operation of councils’ Audit Committees are having a positive impact on the effectiveness of overview and scrutiny too.

Later this year we will be publishing further material of finance and budget scrutiny.

Scrutiny of commercial activity

With councils having been affected by the high profile failure of some commercial activities in recent years, there is renewed attention on the scrutiny of those issues. Even so, a full quarter of respondents were not at all confident that scrutiny was able to adequately oversee these matters at their authorities. Respondents felt that more consistent activity throughout the year, a clearer role for scrutiny and better access to information would all help to improve scrutiny in this area.

Support and resourcing

The response rate means we have to be careful when it comes to putting out “average” resourcing arrangements for scrutiny. However, even accounting for the “optimism bias” we mentioned earlier, it does seem that the number of councils benefiting from policy advice to scrutiny committees from specialist scrutiny officers is staying fairly static. Anecdotally, we know of councils where, after a number of years of little to no officer support to scrutiny, concerted effort is now being made to bolster the resourcing of the function. Often this is because of a new-found corporate recognition of the importance of the function for the effectiveness of the wider governance framework.

Thinking about the future

We always ask people about the future of scrutiny and in our 20th anniversary year this feels more relevant than ever. There is cautious optimism. Around half felt that “scrutiny is well placed to tackle the big challenges that the area faces”; around 60% felt that “the future for scrutiny in this area, overall, is positive”.

The detailed report

In the production of our detailed report on the survey we will be looking to answer some questions that demand deeper analysis of the data. These are questions we have asked before – for example:

  • Does dedicated officer support always make scrutiny more effective?
  • Does politically balanced chairing make scrutiny more effective?
  • Do councils with more effective approaches to financial scrutiny tend to be those with opposition chairing?
  • Is there a connection between different approaches to work programming and effectiveness?
  • Do some of the practices suggested in the statutory scrutiny guidance make scrutiny more effective?

If there are questions that you have about scrutiny, its work and its impact, it may be that the survey in the data in the survey can answer them. Get in touch and we will see if we can weave some of those answers into our final report.

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.