Statutorily the same? By Camilla de Bernhardt Lane
It feels like a different world in which the Department formally known as MHCLG published the statutory guidance for councils and combined authorities on the 7th May 2019. For those of us who have inhabited the Scrutiny Sphere for some time there were few surprises. However, the realistic approach with a smattering of helpful suggestions was certainly welcome. I have often reflected that understanding Scrutiny is best done experientially, and the statutory guidance felt as if it were written by people who, refreshingly, did have experience of Scrutiny on the ground. The diagram below is my summary of the highlights of the guidance for easy reference:
At the recent County and Unitary Network meeting, we took the opportunity to reflect upon the three years since the guidance was published. For many of us, the explosion of Covid less than a year after the publication of the guidance, interrupted what might have been assumed as greater focus and certainly evaluation. This reflection piece is peppered with quotes that colleagues shared in this session and informed by the discussion.
It is certain that Covid interrupted business as usual and unsurprisingly had a clear impact upon many area’s contemplation of scrutiny arrangements:
The interest of the Select Committee and subsequently the Secretary of State for Local Government did have the impact of shining a spotlight upon local arrangements. This focus and interest can only help champion the need for positive scrutiny and further support an often-undervalued function. Such interest continues to put the need and value of Scrutiny in the minds of senior leaders.
The central tenant of culture recognised the challenge that Scrutiny faces across the Country – namely that the most fundamental driver of effectiveness rests upon factors that are largely outside its control.
No matter how innovative, evidence-based, and insightful the critical friend challenge and the recommendations for improvement are – if the decision-making parts of the organisation do not listen, or are not welcoming of Scrutiny’s contributions, or actually block the function from working, then Scrutiny cannot function well.
‘Parity of esteem’, and default access to information are tunes that Scrutiny officers frequently pla and the culture of the organisation determines the extend to which they are listened to.
The second pillar reflected what the under-funded sector has often said– that resourcing, and specifically a dedicated resource is critical for success. Every Scrutineer will appreciate the benefit of having a professional resource to ‘hold the ring’. What is less clear, is whether the guidance actually had the intended impact of raising the corporate profile of scrutiny officers, and saw them sit on management
Increasing the visibility of scrutiny – a running theme through the guidance – refers to promoting the value and contribution of Scrutiny both internally to the authority and crucially externally to the public. This relies upon a coherent narrative about the value and impact of Scrutiny. To this end, the relationship between scrutiny and a comms team and scrutiny considering how to engage with members of the public is a perennial issue that most authorities are faced with. For some Authorities, the guidance prompted this consideration:
Beyond these conversations and concrete actions, it seems certain that aspects of the guidance have been helpful, but as prompts rather than wholesale changes to the landscape of Scrutiny. Access to information, Scrutiny-executive protocols, changes to committee selection and any different approach to gathering information seem to either have been developed already, or not focused upon currently. This is understandable given the overarching challenges facing Councils. It is also for Scrutiny practitioners to know the arrangements that bring the best constructive challenge at a local level.
Overall, it feels like the statutory guidance has been moderately helpful, useful as an updated guide, reasserting the value, and outlining some practical approaches to the fluid practice of scrutiny. Some practitioners did use the publication to sense check their practices and make adjustments and improvements. However, more could be done in the space between legislation and impact on the ground to encourage councils to reach scrutiny’s highest future possibility. Whether the challenges facing councils will allow more of the guidance to be embedded remains to be seen.