Our annual survey

Posted on 20/09/2022 by Ed Hammond.

We have now published our annual survey of overview and scrutiny in local government – the definitive picture of scrutiny’s effectiveness in the first year post-pandemic.

You can read a summary of the key findings here – https://www.cfgs.org.uk/?publication=what-makes-for-effective-scrutiny-excerpt-from-the-cfgs-annual-survey-2021 . The full report can be read here – https://www.cfgs.org.uk/?publication=cfgs-annual-survey-2021-22.

The findings are perhaps unsurprising – reflecting a general trends over recent years. Scrutiny is effective when it is given the support to do its work properly – not just in terms of resources (although this is important!) but also the support of a senior officer cohort and Cabinet who are prepared to put the time in to make scrutiny work effectively.

Better scrutiny tends to happen in councils with executive-scrutiny protocols and with proper systems in place for members to access and use information. And better, more “impactful” scrutiny is more likely when work programmes are robust, and designed to meaningfully reflect local priorities. We continue to argue against an approach to scrutiny agenda management which allows a free-for-all, and where members have an automatic right (often set out in the constitution) to have any item they wish placed on the agenda of a scrutiny committee.

As ever, we have found that structural elements of councils’ scrutiny functions – how many committees you have, their terms of reference, and so on – have a pretty limited impact on effectiveness. That said, there continues to be a correlation – albeit a weak one – between effectiveness and councils where chairing positions are given to opposition parties. While councils are under no obligation to appoint opposition members to chairing positions, we are keen to see more trialling these approaches. It’s notable that the number of councils making arrangements for opposition chairing continues to increase, though the increase is quite slight.

Where we continue to worry is around scrutiny’s approach to risk, its approach to council finances, and its approach to the oversight of commercial activity. Recent Government interventions, and possible interventions in other areas, have often hinged around the poor governance of commercial activity and/or poor management of finances. In this context, getting this form of scrutiny right is crucially important. We plan to publish a resource pack for practitioners on financial scrutiny later this autumn – this pack will bring together some of our previous publications on financial scrutiny. This week (w/c 19/9) we have also published a new guide on scrutiny of critical risks, with a particular focus on commercialisation. This is a complement, and update, to previous material we have published on the subject (notably this research, produced with APSE a couple of years ago –  https://www.cfgs.org.uk/?publication=risk-and-commercialisation-a-guide-for-scrutiny-councillors .

One thing that we have noted in carrying out our research (and in our wider work with councils) is the issue of how scrutiny should operate under the committee system. While the statutory guidance on overview and scrutiny, published in 2019, purports to cover committee system authorities as well as Cabinet ones, we recognise that more support may be needed for those authorities, in particular where concern exists around the duplication of work between scrutiny committees and service committees. We expect to publish more on this in the early winter.

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.