Impact and influence: more lessons for local government from select committees

Posted on 24/06/2016 by Ed Hammond. Tags: ,

This is the second of three blogposts about scrutiny’s impact.

In the first post of this series, I introduced two recent pieces of research carried out into the impact of select committee work – “Selective Influence”, a detailed study published in 2011 by Meg Russell and Meghan Benton at UCL’s Constitution Unit, and a more recent paper, “Select committees under scrutiny”, written by Hannah White at the Institute for Government.

These pieces of research identified respectively a number of sources for select committees’ influence, and ways to measure that influence. Those sources and measures are, I’d suggest, relevant to local government too. In fact, they are a useful starting-off point for considering how impact and influence might be improved.

Hannah’s research in fact goes down this path, and the lessons she suggests for select committees are I think equally relevant to local overview and scrutiny committees. I’ve set them out below – alongside some of my own reflections from a local government standpoint:

  • Know what you are trying to achieve. This sounds basic but is so important. Too often scrutiny reviews fail because the scope is focused on activity, not on outcomes. Having a clear sense of the value that scrutiny work might add is central to having an impact;
  • Think about the impact of the inquiry process as well as its output. This is linked to the lesson above. A scrutiny report isn’t the end of the process. That report needs to make a change;
  • Consider long-term outcomes as well as short-term impact. Meg and Meghan, in their research, cite the importance of what is known as “delayed drop” – the idea that while recommendations might not have an immediate impact, further down the line they may be implemented – and a committee’s work in achieving that end not recognised. Another factor cited by Hannah is the tendency for select committees to undertake longer-term campaigns on particular issues – she cites the Home Affairs Select Committee’s work on the Border Agency as an example. The lesson for scrutiny is about planning to return to a topic, organising work programming to reflect and reconsider topics (rather than returning to them periodically in a disjointed manner) and – critically – keeping up the pressure on decision-makers to make changes;
  • Understand the impact of predictability. This relates closely to Meg and Meghan’s idea of select committees “generating fear”. For scrutiny, predictable “asks” and focus areas can provoke service departments to tighten up their internal systems to be better at handling such requests – this can help both to manage resource constraints and the difficulty that some non-executive members have getting hold of information of a sufficiently high quality, on a regular basis, to scrutinise well;
  • Don’t allow a focus on consensus to blind you to the value of exposing dissent. We have always said that scrutiny should focus on issues on political contention. Good scrutiny is inherently political – it barrels into things that are controversial and tries to develop evidence-based consensus solution. But consensus being difficult to come by should not mean that scrutiny should be avoided. The kinds of influence and impact highlighted by Russell and Benton aren’t all contingent on a committee making recommendations;
  • Make conscious decisions about the trade-offs involved in scrutiny. In my view, this is one of the most critical weaknesses of scrutiny at local level. Scrutiny practitioners find it incredibly difficult to accept that trade-offs are necessary at all, much less make conscious decisions about them. But this has a huge effect on impact. There will always be a tendency to attempt to look at everything, in detail – but the trade-off here is that such scrutiny will almost by definition be very superficial. Trade-offs between different topics, and different ways of working, is what makes the difference between good scrutiny and indifferent scrutiny;
  • Remember that impact can be “win-win” for parliament and Government. Here we might substitute “scrutiny and Cabinet”. I think that scrutiny committees are rather better at liaising and communicating with Cabinet to find work that might be mutually advantageous than select committees are with Government. That said, there’s always room for improvement. Reference to the corporate plan, the Forward Plan, other major planning documents is important to keep scrutiny grounded in what’s doable. A close working relationship with Cabinet is an opportunity – a necessity – not automatically a threat to scrutiny’s independence;
  • Understand that good scrutiny may not be enough. Factors will always emerge which are beyond your control. Sometimes the attitudes of those who you are trying to scrutinise may make scrutiny very difficult. Changes to working methods may be necessary to identify these external factors as risks, and to seek to mitigate them as far as possible.

In the third and final part of this short series of blogs, I’ll be going into more detail about how the lessons from this type of research are going to be used by us to rethink how we can pause, reflect and improve scrutiny through the use of “scrutiny evaluations” – building on our existing “Accountability Works for You” methodology. Before then I will leave you with a quote from Hannah’s conclusion:

“Some would argue that the unequal relationship between the executive and the legislature under the UK’s system of government makes it impossible for the scrutiny conducted by Parliament to have any significant impact on the government. Certainly it is rarely in the interests of the government and Civil Service to strengthen the legislature’s scrutiny function. So, as ever, it is up to backbenchers and parliamentary staff to take on this challenge. There is an obvious interest for Parliament in making scrutiny the best it can be, and cementing its own role as a mechanism for improving the effectiveness of government.”

This is a call to arms for scrutiny practitioners in local government as much as it is for those working with Parliamentary select committees. Hopefully, the work we are doing this year to revisit issues around “scrutiny improvement” will help you to meet those challenges.

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.