Revisiting the four principles of good scrutiny

Posted on 08/09/2020 by Ed Hammond.

One of the first things that the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny did when it was established in 2003 was to try to articulate some fundamental principles of good scrutiny.

We set out four things that we thought were essential to make scrutiny effective. These have stood the test of time and, with some minor tweaks in wording, continued to be critically important. They are:

  • provide constructive “critical friend” challenge; 
  • amplify the voice and concerns of the public
  • be led by independent people who take responsibility for their role 
  • drive improvement in public services.

We initially drafted these principles to apply particularly to local government – but they are just as valid and useful in other sectors.

But what do they fundamentally mean? We thought that, as we rename ourselves to the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny, there was a good opportunity to return and reflect on these principles and to explain what they might mean for us, and you, 17 years after they were first coined.

Critical friend challenge

Being a “critical friend” is a tough balancing act. Scrutiny must be forensic and challenging – but it must also seek to support decision-makers to do their work better. We all have a collective responsibility to support high quality decision-making, and scrutiny is an integral part of the governance framework that works to make that happen.

Scrutiny isn’t about opposition for opposition’s sake, but in, democratic environments, it is inherently political. It involves scrutineers discussing matters of real contention and importance and, through debate, identifying novel solutions to complex problems. Being a “critical friend” involves understanding what decision-makers are trying to achieve and using evidence both to critique and refine these priorities and the methods proposed to achieve them.

Decision-makers also have to be friends to scrutineers, be open to scrutiny and create a culture which enables effective scrutiny to happen. The relationship is two-way.

The voice and concerns of the public

17 years ago the way we talked about public engagement, or consultation, was quite different. The way consultation happened in local government still looked at felt analogue – directed through public meetings, discussion with community and amenity groups, and large-scale paper surveys.

Things have since transformed. The use of new methods for public deliberation and participation have also increased the expectation of the public in how, where and when they will be involved.

Scrutineers have a dual job here. Firstly, to ensure that the public’s (and/or specific stakeholders) voice is heard generally in the way that decision-makers design and deliver services. How can we improve the way that we listen to and work alongside local people? Secondly, to improve the practice of scrutiny itself, by redesigning the way that we work so that we face outwards, looking at the issues that are important to local people in a way that makes sense to them, and using this relevance to improve our profile.

Of course, such work requires that councils are open to scrutiny raising its profile in the first place, which is never guaranteed!

Led by independent people

A while ago we called these people “independent-minded governors”, but we changed this to “people” because nobody was ever sure what “governors” meant in this context.

Saying that scrutineers should be independent-minded is not the same as saying that they should be apolitical or somehow “above the fray”. Scrutiny is intensely political. Scrutineers, in the local government context, are politicians. But they have a unique perspective to bring to the scrutiny process, a different point of view which brings something distinct to both policy development and post-decision scrutiny. By setting their own work programmes and asserting their independence, these councillors can look at things from angles that might not be apparent to Cabinet members, or senior officers.

Improvement in public services

What is the point in scrutiny if it doesn’t lead to any changes? In many ways, this is one of the most vexing things about good scrutiny. A high quality, punchy report may sink without trace if a mercurial Cabinet decides it dislikes it. Scrutiny may be dissuaded, or driven off, from important work. Scrutiny may lack resources, and councillors may lack the skills and time, to design and deliver work that counts.

This doesn’t mean that scrutiny itself is flawed, more that there are structural barriers to its operation in many councils. When it does work, it works well – and we will later this year be demonstrating just that through the publication of our (COVID-delayed) “Scrutiny frontiers” publication, highlighting some of the best scrutiny work from the past year or so.  


Do these four principles still speak to you as relevant and necessary? How do they apply across the wider range of local government bodies or other public services, in co-operatives or private sector bodies delivering public services?

We’re keen to hear about how you might have used them in the past to explain scrutiny to others in your authority or to plan and evaluate scrutiny work. If you think you might need some help in evaluating and improving scrutiny with this in mind, click here for more information about how we can assist.


UPDATE: This post was updated on 10/9/20 to alter the wording of the “four principles” to match those in the “Good scrutiny guide” (CfGS, 2019)


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.