Scrutiny statutory guidance published
The statutory guidance on overview and scrutiny in local government has now been published by MHCLG.
This guidance has been produced following a commitment that Government made in early 2018, following on from the Communities and Local Government Select Committee’s inquiry into O&S.
We participated in the drafting process – producing material to support MHCLG in pulling together the final document.
What are the key components?
The most important thing is culture. This is about the whole council, not just scrutiny councillors, scrutiny officers and people working in democratic services. A commitment has to begin with the council’s Chief Executive and political leadership – a meaningful commitment, accompanied by action, not just words.
A cultural commitment to scrutiny is about taking action to encourage scrutiny that is challenging, uncomfortable and potentially politically difficult. Scrutiny’s part in this bargain is to recognise that its work must be designed to have impact.
The guidance has a fair amount to say on the technical aspects of scrutiny – but it does affect a lightness of touch. At various points is takes pains to note that it does not wish to prescribe – just to offer ideas and a framework within which local scrutiny functions will need to find their own solutions. But inevitably there will be things here which should cause councils to reflect on their own performance. In particular:
- Role and prioritisation – scrutiny’s role has to be focused, and the scrutiny work programme needs to be carefully prioritised.
- Selecting committee members – the right people have to be selected to be on committees, and to hold the position of chair. The guidance gives a sense of the personal attributes that people in these positions will require. It recognises the political element of chair selection.
- Access to information – this emphasises the rights that members have to access information and states that councillors should have regular access to key sources of information which, collectively, will give them a sense of the management of the authority, with a particular focus on performance, finance and risk;
- Gathering evidence and making recommendations – the role of the chair in managing the gathering of evidence is seen as especially important – as it the work of members in pulling together focused and achievable recommendations.
- Resourcing – it perhaps goes without saying, but the resource must be available to ensure that the above things can happen properly. For many councils, facing severe financial challenge, we recognise that these kinds of statement coming from Government may provoke exasperation. We’re planning to do more in the coming months to help councils to understand how they prioritise their work to make the best use of available resources.
Formally, the guidance applies to scrutiny in combined authorities as well as local authorities. However, we think that the guidance comes up slightly short on this point – it doesn’t recognise the very different way that scrutiny needs to be carried out at local level compared to the strategic task of scrutiny at CAs. Through the Combined Authority Governance Network and the LGA, we’ll be continuing to liaise closely with colleagues in CAs to understand what changes they might make to their scrutiny arrangements as a result. Obviously, the informal guidance that we produced on combined authority scrutiny back in 2017 still stands, and aligns with this guidance’s contents.
What happens next?
The publication of the guidance will inevitable provoke you and others within the council to reflect on whether scrutiny is working as well as it could, and if there are any actions that you can take to improve things.
We’re hoping to support you in this work in the coming weeks. You’ll see articles in the trade press and online supportive of the role of scrutiny, and probably an alert in your inbox (if you subscribe to our mailing list) explaining our activities in more detail. Next week, we are publishing a thinkpiece on political culture which engages with the central theme of the guidance. Also next week, we will be contacting Heads of Governance and Monitoring Officers to flag this issue up with them. We’re planning further activity to engage directly with councillors on the kind of support they (you, if you’re a councillor reading this) need to do scrutiny well.
In a couple of weeks time we will be publishing a revision and update of our Good Scrutiny Guide – to take into account what the guidance says and to update some of the content to reflect how the world has changed our last series of practice guides were published in 2014.
We are very keen to hear more about what – if anything – you are planning to do to discuss the guidance and its implications in your council. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know.