Lessons from scrutiny improvement reviews

Posted on 03/08/2021 by Ed Hammond.

In 2018, CfGS carried out its first evaluations of local authority scrutiny functions using a new method, and under a new title. We brought together our wealth of research, policy and practical experience and developed the “scrutiny improvement review” (SIR) as a consistent and comprehensive way to evaluate scrutiny arrangements, to diagnose problems and to prescribe solutions.

In the time since we have carried out more than 30 of these exercises, which have produced clear and tangible results for those councils who have been through the process.

It feels right to take this opportunity to reflect on the common themes and features that this work has surfaced, as well as the impact that SIRs have had.

This autumn we will be producing a report providing this analysis and evaluation. As this gets underway we wanted to share with you some of the emerging themes from our early review of all of these SIR reports.

  • Organisational commitment to scrutiny is often present in the abstract, but rather less so in practice. The days when senior officers and Cabinet members were vocally antagonistic towards scrutiny do appear (by and large) to be over, but they have created a separate challenge. Often council leaderships “talk the talk” on scrutiny – being able to articulate its importance and express a commitment to supporting it. “Walking the walk” is a tougher challenge – it involves facing up to the everyday challenge that scrutiny may be doing things which are awkward and frustrating for the executive, and sometimes appearing to be against party loyalty, and recognise the need to put in the effort to work through those challenges.
  • Real prioritisation of workload continues to be tough. SIRs always seem to come back to one thing – prioritisation. Councils are now much better than they used to be on work programming, and selecting the right topics. The changes that we often end up recommending feel more like they are about refining systems that are already fairly robust, rather than arguing for the rebuilding of work programming systems from the ground up.
  • Information access continues to be a bugbear. Things are improving though, and this improvement is probably accelerated by what the statutory scrutiny guidance has to say about information access. Where information access has proven challenging it is generally because the officer understanding of member need (on the executive side) isn’t present – relationship-building will usually result in a more nuanced and positive approach on the part of senior officers.
  • Good Chairs are crucially important. We don’t subscribe to the “heroic” model of leadership. This is the idea that all you need is a charismatic person at the top who can lead the way, bang heads together and be an all-round exemplar of positive behaviour; someone who commands cross-party respect and who all councillors can “get behind”. That said, having people in chairing positions who command respect and are independent minded seems more important now than ever. This is not so much a matter of party affiliation. An independent mindset is important too.
  • Committee structure often doesn’t make much difference – although tweaks to structures can act as a catalyst to wider improvement. A lot of the discussion of “improving scrutiny” can fixate on fiddling with the terms of reference, and number, of committees. Such work is not entirely wasted effort, but we often find ourselves invited to conduct an SIR because recent structural changes haven’t bedded down especially well, or because an existing committee structure is seen as unsustainable. Often an SIR will dig in to the issues behind those structural challenges; we will sometimes make recommendations for structural change but these are never front and centre of the work we do. Culture almost always comes first; tweaks to structure can, of course, help to push culture in the right direction.

In many respects the evidence we’ve gathered reflects the findings of recent annual survey results, which is as we would expect.

When we produce our final analysis in the autumn we hope also to evaluate how councils we’ve supported have taken forward our recommendations. So if you have been through an SIR, you can expect to hear from us in the coming weeks!

For everyone else, if you think you might benefit from the insight that an expert independent analysis of your scrutiny arrangements might provide, please contact us.

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.