Scrutiny locked out during lockdown?

Posted on 14/05/2020 by Ian Parry.

Should we begin to get worried that nine weeks since the lock-down started and seven weeks since the Coronavirus Act offered councils the means to reinstate council meetings through online, remote communication platforms, some councils still have no scrutiny function, with some declaring plans to put scrutiny on hiatus until later in the year?

It is not that councils are being slow or inactive. On the contrary, they have all crucially moved up several gears to provide the essential response to the Covid-19 crisis. The crisis has caused major disruption and an unquantified financial cost across the sector. Essential decision-making to allow things to happen at pace has continued throughout – but in some cases the arrangements to oversee those decisions have been slower to return.

Initially, we knew that the lock-down would need councils to draw on their emergency powers to make key decisions which would effectively bypass (but still inform and consult) councillors. Then the Coronavirus Act provided the historic change to introduce ‘virtual’ meetings which allowed democratic decision making to reboot.

Most councils found ways to get their Cabinet meetings transacted by virtual means. But far fewer were able to also ensure that the mirror to the executive – scrutiny – was also in place. Even now, some nine weeks on, scrutiny is ‘dark’ in some councils.  Perhaps we should start to ask why. Is scrutiny such an unnecessary part of governance and democracy that we can do without it for now, or would it just get in the way, or is it just not worth the effort?

The answer is more varied and perhaps understandable, if not completely excusable. Side-lining scrutiny at a time of crisis is unlikely to be a good thing. That is why, in the middle of a super-crisis, government ministers find the time and appropriate technology to ensure that there is daily scrutiny in Parliament and live daily media updates. There is no ‘we don’t have time for this’ approach. Even at the highest and most acute parts of government decision making, accountability and scrutiny is a key component. If it was absent there would be outcry.

Why is local government different?  Scale and capacity for one thing, as councils have had to make all kinds of changes to marshall sufficient front-line resources to tackle the crisis at local level. These days most councils are built on lean structures, so it’s hard to find enough people to deal with the multiple challenges of an unprecedented crisis and to try to provide as much normal service as possible.  

But if there is no scrutiny taking place allowing some public oversight, then there are potential implications. No scrutiny can mean less accountability – or worse, weaker decisions that go unchallenged.

Side-lined scrutiny is mainly happening for one or a combination of the following reasons:

  • Tech resources may be thought to be unavailable. There are still a relatively large number of councils that have not transitioned to paperless and councillors have no equipment such as a laptop, tablet or smartphone they can use to access online meetings. However most have ensured that Cabinet does have this functionality.  Getting the technical infrastructure in place is taking time and for many councils it’s an expense they have difficulty in facing.
  • Staff support has been reassigned. Inevitably it’s highly probable that the people with the expertise needed to set things up are now assigned to Covid-19 response, so there just isn’t the means to organise and prepare.
  • Complex scrutiny structures. Where councils operate half a dozen scrutiny committees, plus several statutory regulatory committees (often given priority), getting all of them off the ground and into the virtual meeting space is a mammoth task. Then there are all the struggles with the choice of conferencing software and a hundred other details to resolve. The solution for some is to keep things more streamlined and simple. Creating a composite scrutiny committee for example to focus only on standing issues relevant to the crisis – response, consequences and recovery. Then over time reinstating other committees as experience builds.
  • Member technical capability deficient. Not everyone is Zoom savvy. Whatever conferencing option is selected equipping and training Members takes time and resources. For some it is considered a major obstacle and will take some time to resolve.
  • Other ‘solutions’ and fixes have been put in place. Reorganising processes so that scrutiny members (or all members) are kept informed of decisions and progress is seen by some councils as the acceptable fix. There are examples where the Chair(s) and vice-Chairs are invited to observe Cabinet as a means of involving scrutiny. Unfortunately, none would fulfil the requirements under the 2000 LG Act, they all fall short.
  • There is a sense that scrutiny would get in the way. Perhaps the most questionable cause of side-lined scrutiny is that officers are too busy dealing with the crisis itself to attend or even organise scrutiny, so there is a general push-back. It is understandable, especially if scrutiny is unable to express a clear objective in overseeing and holding to account the key decision-makers and leaders of the crisis response. If officers assume that the business-as-unusual scrutiny experience is unlikely to provide any value or contribution, then why bother indeed. Therefore, scrutiny needs to be clear about its intention and objective and have the confidence, courage and authority to do its job.

All of the above causes and effects are logical, but should they be allowable indefinitely. Can practical solutions be found if more councils share and support each other? Are there sources of knowledge and expertise that can be borrowed and lent? There plenty of activity and a large appetite among scrutiny professionals to gather and share learning in this new era of online scrutiny, which is becoming a significant resource to draw on together with help and support from CfGS and its network of partner organisations.

It is conceivably more reasonable that small councils will need more time to adjust and may need more assistance from others, but for larger councils the absence of public scrutiny seems harder to justify. It is odd to see examples where one upper tier council has active scrutiny which has being meeting for a while and over the border at its similar neighbour council there are no signs of it even starting.

Our guide on scrutiny during the COVID-19 crisis explains more about why scrutiny is critically important during this time, and practical ways to re-establish it.

About the Author: Ian Parry

Ian leads on CfGS Business Development, working with clients across the public, private and voluntary sector to get the most from our consultancy and training. Ian is a councillor at Staffordshire County Council, where he was formerly the Deputy Leader. | 07831 510 381