Scrutiny – cost and control

Posted on 19/06/2017 by Ed Hammond.

What is the main reason for the reduction in the number of officer posts dedicated to overview and scrutiny in English councils? Usually, it’s explained as an issue to do with resources – senior officers often tell us that in an ideal world it would make sense for there to be a specific policy resource for members to use in carrying out their work. But the current financial position for local government makes that impossible.

It’s often an explanation given for reducing the number of staff devoted to member support more generally, including democratic services officers.

This post will try to demonstrate that this explanation is a fallacy, which is based on lazy assumptions about where costs arise when members interact with council officers.

With less specialisation and less resource comes less capacity. In the absence of dedicated scrutiny officers in many councils, democratic services officers can pick up the strain. I’ve been one of these twin-hatted officers myself – as well as seeing them in action in other authorities. Without the support of a committed manager who “gets” the political nuances of scrutiny and the need to support members in their policy role, such twin-hatters inevitably spend the bulk of their time on committee administration. Political and policy support disappears.

But that support is still necessary. And, in these councils, it now comes to be provided by senior officers – heads of service and members of CMT (there are of course as many abbreviations for a council’s chief officer team as there are councils, but let’s stick with this one). 

What this means is that work supporting scrutiny – preparing reports, helping members to understand key local issues, supporting task and finish groups – falls not to scrutiny officers earning £30,000 a year, but to chief officers earning £100,000. Their time is drawn away from their other duties to support members in ways that are far less visible to the organisation than a specific, dedicated officers – but that is just as resource intensive, if not more so. An hour here or there smoothing over a political problems or trying to support members to scope a review (or helping members to decide what they look at in committee, and how) soon adds up. Time spent fielding informal calls or e-mails from members (and other officers) on scrutiny matters adds up too.

Scrutiny carried out in this way will quite possibly be less effective – it will definitely be less value for money. Committing to make more senior officer resource available to scrutiny – which is what you are doing, when you get rid of more junior scrutiny and/or democratic services officers – is not really a long term solution. In the past few years we have provided a disproportionate amount of support, advice and assistance to councils who broke up their scrutiny teams (or got rid of their last piece of dedicated officer support for scrutiny) a few years ago, and are now finding that scrutiny members are dissatisfied with the function to the extent that it is actively affecting the political and organisational culture of the authority. Worse and less focused challenge, less influence and the diminution of the one way to draw alternative political perspectives into the decision-making process takes its toll. This is picked up not only by councils themselves, but peers and external inspectors – it has been a consistent feature in many recent LGA corporate peer challenges and in many recent Ofsted inspections.

We would strongly advise councils to look again at the actual resource they are putting into scrutiny – and to recognise that some of this is invisible. A few hours here and there for a senior officer soon adds up – time spent sorting out political blow-ups that might have been avoided if an officer had been on top of the issue also needs factoring in. In these extremely challenging financial times we are not saying that appointing or retaining dedicated scrutiny officers is a panacea for good scrutiny, but it needs looking at – properly, with reflection, and with an open mind.

Councils might want to start off by using our self-evaluation framework (link here) to look at how they resource scrutiny, alongside other factors that can help it to be improved. This will make a more informed choice around resourcing possible. What councils can’t do is to continue down the road of not resourcing or supporting scrutiny, and assuming that it will have no real impact.

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.