Update on our CLG inquiry submission

Posted on 08/03/2017 by Nicolay Sorensen.

As the deadline looms we explain our latest thinking.

Over the past few weeks we have been encouraging people to submit evidence to Communities and Local Government Committee inquiry into local government overview and scrutiny. The committee clerk has told us they are particularly interested in receiving evidence from individuals, keen to hear the frank views of those involved in the cut and thrust of council scrutiny who can shed light on the inner workings (or not) of the function. We have also been reassured that if requested, submissions can be kept anonymous. So if you haven’t had a chance to respond,  have a look at the questions the committee are asking here and submit something for Friday.

Our own response has been going through various iterations and is heading towards a final version.  We’re trying hard to prevent it from resembling War and Peace II, but inevitably having conducted research and provided practical support to overview and scrutiny for the last 13 years we’ve got a fair amount to say on the subject. The focus remains largely as set out in our initial thoughts here.

We have often argued, and will continue to do so, that effective scrutiny can only take place in a culture which embraces openness and transparency across the organisation, from the leader down. This critical ‘buy in’ is an important focus of our work and will form a significant part of our response.

We will also be setting out how overview and scrutiny needs to evolve to remain relevant in the fast-changing world of local government and public services. The truth is that resources are much reduced and will continue to be so. Whilst we may want more funding and support for scrutiny locally this isn’t a realistic ask (look at how difficult getting extra funding for social care and health is proving), so it won’t be a main plank of our argument. Scrutiny will need support if it is to manage the increasing complexity that has come to characterise public service delivery be that through how councils support scrutiny, how national programmes, regional employer organisations, the LGA etc… Government will not be convinced to increase funding for local government scrutiny but there could be a case for supporting the sector to manage the complexity which it finds itself operating in.

The last 13 years has told us, time and time again, that scrutiny has a significant positive impact locally. However, there is little or no research which confirms this, nor provides a clear national model for understanding and measuring impact. In a world where every pound spent needs to be justified we would like to see a recommendation for more research to be commissioned into the way the impact of scrutiny is measured and understood.

There is also an opportunity to overhaul current legislation, consolidating and simplifying existing Acts and Orders in to something more comprehensible.  This inevitably will be a somewhat technical part of our submission but one which we feel is important and necessary.

The two additional areas which are likely to also feature in our response are on chairing arrangements and scrutiny ‘following the council pound’. 

From discussions and feedback it is clear that chairing arrangements is a thorny issue.  This is not just confined to scrutiny committees but relates to committees across the authority. We will be making the argument that the way chairs are appointed to committees is overhauled and made more democratic. Our proposal will be that councils should follow a similar approach to the one which is now taken by parliament – where Chairs are proportionate to the political make-up, that candidates can be put forward to Chair a committee and are selected by their peers in secret ballot. This would certainly be more democratic and should help give legitimacy to all committees, and specifically for scrutiny, help with buy-in across the organisation. We hope to work with some authorities to pilot this novel (if not radical) approach to scrutiny Chair appointment as early as May.

The final point on ‘following the council pound’ relates in part to some of our previous arguments for local public accounts committees. Whilst that idea is on the back burner, we do think that local scrutiny should be empowered to scrutinise the council spend – wherever it is made and through whichever form and vehicle services are delivered. The way that councils operate, the partners they work with and their relationship with other local authorities is so vastly different from when the Local Government Act was drawn up that this issue must be revisited.  Complexity must not become a barrier to transparency and accountability.

What we hope will be clear throughout our submission is the value that scrutiny has in local democracy, in decision making and community engagement. It is not perfect, there is much room for improvement, yet it should be acknowledged as a vital and valued important part of the local government governance landscape.

About the Author: Nicolay Sorensen

As Head of Communications, Nicolay oversees CfGS’s communications strategy, events, branding and media relations.