BLOG: Improving Scrutiny: From the perspective of a new Democratic Services Officer by Charlotte Cameron, Democratic Services Officer, Peterborough City Council
From the perspective of a new Democratic Services Officer
When I started my role as a Democratic Services Officer, in the April of this year, I was starting my first role in a local authority. As a fresh, wide eyed new starter I had little idea of how important my role as a scrutiny support officer would be. I had started at the beginning of the municipal year and my authority had 8 new Councillors, 2 new scrutiny committees and for the first time in a while, opposition Chairs.
As an authority, we offered training to all scrutiny members to highlight the importance of both their role and the scrutiny process. Members were taught the importance of; asking the right questions, providing constructive criticism and the role of scrutiny in helping improve the Council’s decision making. I have now been in the role for 7 months and I have found that there are some areas that are key in the support and improvement of effective scrutiny.
The relationship between the Committee and Report Authors
The focus of scrutiny can sometimes be concentrated on the meeting itself and asking questions in a formal setting. However, a strong working relationship between the Committee and the report authors can help improve scrutiny through shared trust and openness. There is value in building a relationship with the Officers who will be working on the scrutiny reports as it creates a forum for communication. If this forum is utilised effectively, the reports that are presented to scrutiny can be better understood and therefore critically reviewed. Improving this relationship between these two groups of the scrutiny format allows for the mutual understanding that, while a piece of work is being scrutinised, it is done in a respectful environment and is for the benefit of the decision-making process.
The value of Co-opted Members
This year we engaged heavily with Members in their recruitment of co-opted members, and I have experienced their value in driving scrutiny forward. If recruitment is efficient and the right people are invited to join the committee, their expertise can offer a unique perspective to the scrutiny meetings. This not only helps the scrutiny committee discuss different lines of enquiry but allows report authors to consider external perspectives that are not influenced within the Council. This strengthens the collaborative environment between Members, independent co-optees and council officers, and supports an open and transparent scrutiny committee. The role of the co-opted member should be valued, and work should continue to grow the reputation of using co-opted members to help improve and develop scrutiny.
The role of the Democratic Services Officer in supporting scrutiny
The role of the Democratic Services Officer is key in the improvement and promotion of effective scrutiny. If we stand for the values and best practice of scrutiny, the Councillors on the committees will see that and it may influence the way they view their role. We are the support system for the committee and if we know the reports, the recommendations and what the potential key lines of enquiry may be, Members will have the confidence that there is support there if they need it. As officers, it is our responsibility to support Members and ensure that scrutiny continues to be constructive in its work to promote and deliver a better, more effective decision-making process.
I have discussed three areas that I believe are significant in improving scrutiny but I have also learnt that improving scrutiny has and will continue to be a continual process. As local authorities face both old and new challenges, it is up to the officers who support scrutiny to move with that change and ensure scrutiny continues to provide the critical challenge to the decision making process.
By Charlotte Cameron, Democratic Services Officer, Peterborough City Council