What will scrutiny look like?

Posted on 27/03/2020 by Ed Hammond.

UPDATE: since this post was published, Regulations on remote meetings have been published, and we have published a more detailed guide on scrutiny during the COVID-19 which you can find here

With arrangements for remote meetings expected to be in place within days what are the kinds of approaches to scrutiny that will make sense in the coming months?

In our blogpost last week we set out a strong case for the principle of why scrutiny should continue. In this post we explore one model of what it might look like. This takes account of a number of assumptions:

  • We will not be in a space, in the short or medium term, where ordinary council scrutiny meetings will continue, just online instead of in person. This is because:
  • Councils will lack the member capacity to engage in a full-spectrum work programme across in some cases multiple committees. Their focus is likely to lie on supporting their residents;
  • Councils will lack the officer capacity to service and support a range of committees and task & finish groups. We know that scrutiny and democratic services officers have already been redeployed to work on the operational community response;
  • The situation is too fast-moving to allow for the effective prioritisation of scrutiny work in the usual manner.

These assumptions may not hold in every council. But councils will have to consider their approach alongside any constraints, which are likely to be significant.

One model that may work is to convene a single scrutiny committee, meeting fortnightly or every three weeks. To this committee would be brought a regular package of information identifying pressure points on council services relating to COVID-19, along with other business critical matters. Agendas would be developed between officers and the chair on the fly.

To assure transparency, decisions made in the preceding fortnight under delegated or urgency powers would be notified to the committee (although not as a formal item). Members could ask questions of officers on decisions which might be the subject of particular concern. Ensuring that there is a clear paper trail for decisions likely to have profound and long lasting consequences is crucial. Councillors oversight of this process will bring vital sunlight to a process which might otherwise start to look loose and opaque.

Committees would also provide councillors with a space to draw on intelligence and insight from their communities – the community response to COVID-19 as well as particular challenges in specific localities, or barriers requiring unblocking.

Until the Regulations on remote working are published, we cannot be sure how these kinds of meetings would actually work in practice. Overall, this approach is something that combined overview and scrutiny with another O&S – outreach and support. It recognises that scrutiny is part of a team effort. While formal oversight of council services remains necessary we anticipate that elements of the role will shift to something more like problem solving, collaboration and learning from local people.

In due course some councils may find themselves with the need and capacity to do more. We suggest that short, sharp task and finish working may, for some, form a part of the response. Particular needs are likely to emerge in respect of social care, and other protections for the most vulnerable. The identification of specific problems relating to certain services could result in task and finish groups being established to quickly resolve those problems. Members could take evidence, individually and collectively, from local people and others on key issues across a few days – reporting back to the next formal meetings. Task and finish work could, following this model, take place aligned to a three or six week cycle, with bulleted findings and actions taking the place of more considered, traditional scrutiny reports.

The current crisis also demands an enhanced role for audit – the financial implications of what we are going through are bound to be significant. We expect to publish more on this in the coming days, but welcome thoughts.

It is likely that a sharper approach to scrutiny which takes full advantage of technology may lead to permanent changes in the way we work, and it’s always wise to have an eye on the longer term. For the moment though the questions for scrutiny will have to be – how can our intervention have a tangible positive outcome, right now? How can our support to the operational response be immediate? How can we shed light on decisions and by so doing, make those decisions better?

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.