Planning scrutiny training for the new municipal year
In local government leading up to May is a busy time of year as councils prepare and plan for a new council year and with all the potential changes that can bring in positions, committee places and if you are facing elections new members or even a change in administration.
Whatever level of change you are expecting, it’s also an ideal time to take stock of member development in relation to your scrutiny. It’s a crucial area of the council and it can become neglected. Basic maintenance in terms of member development can be overlooked. So, it’s the ideal time to look at member skills gaps or development opportunities. Increasing training and developing skills will increase member engagement and produce better scrutiny outcomes.
And its not just councillors that might need help, officers also need to up-date their expertise in supporting scrutiny and specialist scrutiny officers can become overwhelmed with planning and arranging increasingly complex scrutiny programmes. Additional help can to sort this.
A logical place to start is look at the potential work programme for the year, look at the make up of the committee, do some skills analysis and then start looking at ways in which those skills can be added to or plug gaps where they exist. CfGS has an excellent self evaluation tool which is free to use (as is all our other online publications and guides).
But we also need to broaden the outlook and impact of scrutiny in your authority. Instead of looking at the scrutiny work programme – look at what the council’s priorities are. What are the big issues facing the council? What are some of the dangers ahead? Are there lessons which need to be explored? What about social housing, resident voices and safety? Is devolution on the agenda and if so how will it affect service and democracy in your area? What about working with health partners and the challenges of social care. Are there new commercial ventures planned or major infrastructure projects in gestation?
What we know is that the world of local government is more complex, challenging and risky. That means, that like never before, your scrutiny members need to be at the top of their game. They will be expected to tackle big and complex issues well. That mean scrutiny has to beef up its capability and capacity. And that means there is a potential big development need ahead.
The new year gives all of us a chance to step back and look at the bigger picture. To refocus where our energy is best spent and then plan your scrutiny work programme, in a manageable way. From here it may be clear that certain knowledge or expertise is lacking. Don’t let this be a barrier to scrutiny. Plan now for how officers and members can be better informed to tackle these issues head on.
And what about the cost I hear you say? Where do we find the money to help pay for this expertise. Well of course I will plug CfGS training and say that what we can do is help both your programme planning and the training that can support that programme. However, many budgets are tight and getting external training might not be an option.
One thing that the Communities and Local Government Select Committee inquiry in to local government scrutiny made clear was the lack of parity in resources between the executive side and scrutiny. I would argue that with a well formulated plan, that has properly assessed the council’s needs and shows the benefit that planned, resourced and trained scrutiny officers and members corps will make is a good business case for some additional resource. Now it simply may not be possible that extra funds are available. However, the council (and partners and neighbouring authorities) will be full of expertise that can help inform officers and members on specific issues.
Discuss financial scrutiny training needs with your section 151 officer, if the issue is planning speak to someone in your planning team. Want to improve the way your committee understands and uses digital approach? Go and see the comms department and ask if they can spare an afternoon. This sharing of expertise and knowledge across a council can be an effective way of improving officer and member knowledge, that doesn’t cost the earth and to boot helps build relationships across the council. If you are part of a local or regional scrutiny network, think about doing this training with other authorities locally, maybe drawing on their expertise and resources to help on another training issue.
In my view the trick is to start with the big picture. Demonstrate how scrutiny is going to help the council improve or avoid potential pitfalls and you have a compelling narrative to beg borrow and steal your own council’s expertise to make sure the new year has both an effective work-plan and a training plan to back it up.