Moving on with financial scrutiny
Back in 2014, in partnership with Grant Thornton, we produced a detailed piece of guidance for councils in Wales on financial scrutiny called “Raising the stakes”.
Although this work was directed towards Welsh members and officers, and the particular financial systems applying to that part of the world, it had wider application at the time. We have used it to inform a lot of the in-depth advice we have given to councils on financial scrutiny on both sides of the border.
A lot has happened in the intervening three years. Austerity continues. Business rates localisation and retention is still meant to be happening, but timescales are unclear. The sector is struggling on with the uncertainty, but the future continues to look bleak. Tony Travers was reported in the MJ recently as saying that, paradoxically, as the sector has demonstrated itself able to absorb greater and greater savings and cuts, Government is encouraged to send more our way.
The Budget in November – and the financial settlement which happens this week (w/c 18 December) – help us to understand what the real impact on the sector will be. For councils, this will help them to scratch their heads about how to square the circle of their 2018/19 – and to refresh their MTFS to reflect the continually gloomy outlook.
For scrutiny this should also provide an opportunity to reflect, before (in many councils) the main events of budget scrutiny take place.
In a couple of days we will publish a post summarising some of the existing resources available to scrutineers who want to think about how they conduct financial and budget scrutiny. Then, starting in the New Year, we will be producing guest blogs from a range of people, drawing out some of the big themes from “Raising the stakes” for a wider audience, and rethinking them for 2017. This will sit alongside a second series of blogs looking more generally at councils’ wider funding outlook, and what that might mean for local services and local scrutiny.
Amongst other things, we’ll be blogging on:
- Skills and capabilities, including making sure that members and the officers who support them understand the council’s basic financial processes;
- Scrutiny’s role in reviewing that outcome of efficiency and savings programmes, and in reviewing the impact of wider service transformation;
- Public participation in financial scrutiny;
- How officers can present information in a way that is more effective for financial scrutiny, and how members can use that information to craft punchy, relevant questions.
We are keen to publish the experiences of scrutineers in councils currently carrying out scrutiny of the 2018/19 budget. Although budget scrutiny is only a small part of financial scrutiny, it’s high profile, and an important part of the task of understanding and holding to account some of the huge decisions that Cabinets nationwide will be making in the runup to the end of the financial year. So, if you have recently conducting some preparatory budget scrutiny, or plan to do so during January, please get in touch – even if you would prefer to publish your thoughts anonymously!