Scrutiny in action

Posted on 30/04/2020 by Ed Hammond.

Guest post from Councillor Philip Broadhead, BCP Council

If we had tried to imagine only 6-7 weeks ago how very different the world would look today, I would be surprised if we were even able to get close. Lockdown, social distancing and the vast changes to every part of our lives and working practices have forced a wholesale change in how everything is done. Which is why for many it has been hard to just adapt, let alone start to process and organise entirely new systems.

Nowhere has this challenge been more clear than in local authorities. As always, we are on the front line on almost every fight – from social care and the protection of our vulnerable to keeping the roads open and bins collected. And in this period of immense change almost by the hour, there is a natural and understandable drive to focus on the “doing” and let the thinking and analysis come later. However, as many of us know through often bitter experience, it is precisely in these times of immense flux and action that things can – and will – go awry. Which is why, despite the temptation with limited resources and endless emerging problems demanding attention, we need a step up in good scrutiny, not a step down.

Here at Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) Council, a new Unitary Authority of circa 400,000 residents on the South Coast, we tried to hit the ground running and undertook what may be first Scrutiny Board meeting of any authority under the new virtual meeting regulations last Monday, which can be viewed here. As Chairman of this Board, along with the work I have been progressing through other roles I have in the LGA, CCA (Conservative Councillors Association) and working closing with the CfGS, I clocked early that we needed to get new systems in place to facilitate scrutiny. Even before the lockdown, in preparation for the fact that business would be fundamentally changing, and without the legislation having been finalised in Parliament for formal virtual meetings, we had commenced work on what good scrutiny would look like and how it could operate in this new world.

Much of this work is behind the scenes and involves a combination of creating new structures alongside the old fashioned wrangling of the different characters and priorities. Through my connections with others in similar positions around the country, I had heard stories that many of us are familiar with. A Service Director telling Councillors that they would not agree to “any” scrutiny during this crisis period as it would “put lives in jeopardy” by diverting resources. A concern that sharing sensitive operational data in public meetings would be a “security risk”. And tales of politics and egos fighting over who should be the front face of the crisis. However, I have found that all of these concerns are manageable and, in the round, the exception rather than the rule.

My strong advice is to start with the growing guidance from the CfGS, which can be found here. Central to that advice are three main tenets:

  1. Try to focus and condense the scrutiny functions during this period, ideally into one place.
  2. Work through how as much scrutiny as possible can be done without extensive resources – such as not requesting reports, and Councillor led working groups.
  3. Don’t over-plan the future – be ready to be fleet of foot and fluid in your scrutiny plans.

Here at BCP, much of this work was easier than I envisioned. To start with, as a relatively new authority, we had used the opportunity of creating the new council to fundamentally shift how we approach scrutiny. As such, we already have in place one main scrutiny board with additional boards only for the statutory functions. However, working closely with the Chairs of the other boards (particularly Children’s Services and Adults & Social Care) we have agreed, for this period, to funnel everything through the one board – but to add the Chairs of the other Boards to this unified function.

I think this is a crucial action. The thought of organising multiple boards to consider the differing aspects of COVID-19 scrutiny in this period sends a shudder through anyone who knows that this would in no way lead to effective scrutiny. Never mind the reaction of a Chief Executive trying to manage resources.

The harder challenge is to convince those decision makers, who are struggling to keep their heads above water by dealing directly with the crisis, the utility of the “extra” work scrutiny will present. My advice is that the answer comes by doing. Good scrutiny is not “gotcha” politics. It is one of the only public facing ways we have of simultaneously assuring that no issues fall through the gaps (more important in these times than ever before) whilst also highlighting and explaining all the work which is going on. In my view, in a few hours of good scrutiny, an incredible amount of ground can be covered to answer keys questions (and put peoples’ minds at rest about myths) which if dealt with in any other way or forum would use up considerably more time. It can and should help rather than hinder.

Finally, as always, my advice is to make sure you prepare methodically for your first virtual meetings. Have a run-through. Get board members to join the virtual meeting 20-30 minutes before it is due to go live, not 5 minutes. Be strict on the protocol and chairing. But mainly – don’t worry. In my experience, the ultra-formality of the nature of virtual meetings which are being live streamed forces good behaviour from most. The severity of the crisis dilutes the temptation to score points. Silvers lining which I hope will continue long into the future.

If not, we can be thankful that these new ways of working have resulted in one new feature which Chairman have yearned for since the advent of meetings. A universal mute button.

If you are a councillor or officer and want to take the opportunity to share your experiences of carrying out scrutiny over the course of the COVID-19 crisis, please get in touch with CfGS

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.