Scrutinising scrutiny

Posted on 09/02/2017 by Jacqui McKinlay.

Jaqui McKinlay on why now is the time to shout about scrutiny successes 

The Communities and Local Government Committee (CLG) inquiry into local government overview and scrutiny (O&S) is certainly overdue. A model which was first introduced nearly two decades ago has so far avoided much scrutiny itself, with most broadly accepting that it was preferable to the committee system it replaced. 

At CfGS, unsurprisingly, we strongly believe that the current approach is still the right one – grounded in the principles of democracy and giving a strong role to backbenchers in relation to policy development and holding to account. But it’s certainly not perfect and there could be no better time to have a national conversation about where scrutiny gets it right and where it could be improved.

The local government and public services landscape is radically different today compared to 17 years ago. Changes that both challenge and reinforce the need for overview and scrutiny: the level of complexity now involved in the commissioning and running of council services; the range of delivery vehicles, and the symbiotic relationships between public services. These developments make identifying who is accountable and holding them to account a big ask. It has also created a complex environment to manage risk, budgets and performance.

In this context, we have seen tragic consequences when accountability is blurred, the most vulnerable are not protected and overview and scrutiny (amongst others) have not been up to the task of holding to account.

It is an often-aired view that overview and scrutiny is a lot of effort for not much impact, and only about giving backbenchers something to do. It’s also argued that ‘lay people’ are not up to the complexities of the new world, committees can’t react quickly enough and try to do too much, badly. And a frequent challenge is that politics will always get in the way of impartiality and independence.

It is however also within this context that scrutiny has quietly evolved and responded to deliver many successes. Are they shouted about? No of course not, scrutiny is like the rest of the sector in that improving lives is our goal and trying to making a positive difference is a continuous task. We have the honour of meeting hard working, determined, resilient scrutiny councillors who are going above and beyond every day. Even in the most difficult circumstances, every council has examples of scrutiny success.

Scrutiny, at its best helps local authorities save money, make better decisions and acts as a vital link between council and communities. Essential is buy-in from the leadership to the principle of overview and scrutiny, and support to make it work. People are not naturally equipped with the skills to question, chair, understand performance information, etc. This isn’t necessarily about chucking money at democratic services teams (the days of that plea have long gone) but creating a strong culture of support and being committed to making scrutiny work are both critically important.

Can there be improvements – yes many. We need to get better at measuring impact, become less of a paper reviewing machine, get more creative at how scrutiny is carried out (less time in stuffy committee rooms), training to increase councillor confidence and capability. Above all we need ruthless prioritisation to make sure scrutiny focuses only on those issues where it can make an impact. The legislation could do with a tidy-up too.

Scrutiny can no longer operate as it did in 2000, and rightly should be challenged to avoid complacency, but O&S is a safeguard, led by people voted by the public and given the job of ensuring that those in power don’t lose sight of the fact that they exist to serve their communities.

Our formal response to the inquiry, which closes to evidence on March 10, will argue that the developments in local government, and events both nationally and internationally, mean that O&S is something that needs to be protected but which must also up its game to continue to be relevant.

We are encouraging as many councils and councillors to share their thoughts with the CLG committee – please take this opportunity to share your views here.

This opinion piece has also been published in the MJ Magazine here.


About the Author: Jacqui McKinlay

Jacqui was Chief Executive of the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny from 2015 until 2021.