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Saturday, 19 October 2013

59. Three new roles for scrutiny

First posted on the Good Practice Exchange at the Wales Audit Office.

It feels like local government scrutiny is at a crossroads; becoming all grown up and trying to make its way.
The world that scrutiny was born into was very different to the one it finds itself in today and scrutiny needs to adapt.  But how should it change?  I want to point to three new roles in particular; these are the innovation, regulation and engagement roles.

Growing Up in a Changing World

The build up to what promises to be a very significant first major scrutiny conference in Wales is a good moment to think about what scrutiny could look like in future.  I like the ‘all grown up’ theme, after all, local government scrutiny, born out of the Local Government Act 2000 is now a teenager.  But let’s not forget that teenagers are not quite grown up yet; perhaps more independent and responsible in some ways, but not quite fully trusted in others.  

Scrutiny has come a long way in 13 years and there are many excellent examples of scrutiny making a difference.  However, even if scrutiny has fully matured as a function (and I am not sure that it has) then the fact that today’s world is so different from the one that scrutiny was born into should in any case be a cause for reflection.

Shrinking resources coupled with increasing demands for services are creating unprecedented challenges for local councils who will need to reinvent themselves to a large extent.  At the same time new ways of configuring services across traditional organisational boundaries are generating new puzzles for accountability and democracy.  In Wales we are waiting to hear the results of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery due to report before the end of 2013.  No doubt this will change the world that scrutiny lives in even further.

What is Scrutiny For?

So, in this changing and challenging world of local government what exactly is scrutiny for?  This is not a new question of course.  Back in 2004 Ashworth and Snape identified four key roles for scrutiny from the government guidance of the time.  These were:

  • holding the executive to account
  • policy development and review
  • best value and performance management 
  • external scrutiny

The fact that many other roles were also being talked about at the time tells you something about the contested and debated nature of scrutiny that, in my opinion in any case, is still alive and well.  One of Ashworth and Snape’s key findings was that, despite government intentions, it was the policy development and review roles that councils were most comfortable with running with and that this had in practice become the main role of scrutiny.  Something they describe as ‘a salutary lesson of the triumph of local context over centrally prescribed structural solutions’.

What this history suggests is that for scrutiny to have a meaningful role, it must meet the needs, not just of governance in a general sense, but of the local councils that support it.

Three New Roles:  Innovation, Regulation and Engagement

So how should scrutiny reflect its intended purpose while building on what has gone before and meeting the needs of local government in the current context?  I want to point at three things.


I have posted before about scrutiny being a source of innovation.  While innovation becomes increasingly necessary for local government so scrutiny is a well placed and available resource for developing new ways of doing things.  I see the innovation role as being the natural successor to the policy development role albeit with a greater imperative.


Scrutiny has always had an important contribution to make to performance management and to performance monitoring in particular.  The logical next step is for scrutiny to be performing many of the same functions that regulators do now; raising concerns where performance is poor, highlighting good practice and making recommendations for improvement.  Sure, much of this already happens but without the same weight as is carried by an external auditor or regulator.  If scrutiny can fill this role then there are savings to be made across government – in England new forms of peer regulation are being explored partly for this reason.  However, if this is to happen then scrutiny will need the confidence of both local and national government.  It will also need a greater degree of independence than it has now.


Public engagement has long been an important aspiration of the scrutiny process and an important aspect of scrutiny practice.  What I am suggesting here is that scrutiny can be the point of engagement for the whole council.  All strategic consultation and engagement could be done through scrutiny ensuring both a single point of coordination for these activities and, perhaps more importantly, a single, recognised point of entry for the public.  Many of the skills are already available in scrutiny support teams and, as scrutiny is a councillor led function, routing engagement through scrutiny ensures that councillors are at the heart of strategic consultation and engagement.

I have carefully said ‘strategic consultation and engagement’; I don’t want to suggest that council services stop consulting and engaging with citizens as a part of their day to day.

One more important point here is that digital and social media will have an important part in play in ensuring that engagement is both effective and efficient.

What I have tried to think about here are the ways in which scrutiny can provide the maximum utility within reconfigured local councils while ensuring that good governance is still well served.  Or, to put it another way, how scrutiny can be all grown up.    

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/duncan/99863704/ 


Ashworth, Rachel and Snape, Stephanie(2004) 'An Overview of Scrutiny: A Triumph of Context over Structure', Local Government Studies, 30: 4, 538 — 556



Anonymous said...

I've no doubt the model of scrutiny, as you describe it, works to some extent in those councils where resources are plentiful and that these new roles will be taken on with gusto in those councils. However, has anybody ever taken the time to test the value, or effectiveness of scrutiny in the world where many councils exist, small, rural and paddling desperately to stay afloat? I think not.

If they had, I believe they would find it to be a well meaning, but highly inefficient, ineffective and ultimately, pointless process. Even where one finds support for the process from councillors - I've yet to read an endorsement by any officers involved in the process by the way - scratching the surface of their so called successes, often reveals nothing but a piece of political spin, or a brave attempt to put a positive face on an expensive and time consuming exercise in navel gazing.

Ultimately, scrutiny requires the same levels of understanding and effort as would be applied to the production of a committee or cabinet report from a head of service, or director. What it actually gets, is a vague, unfocused and often irrelevant set of questions, gathered by a long suffering scrutiny support officer, during a meeting that often lasts twice as long as it needs to and eventually passed up the line for answers from the relevant dept, where the unlucky recipient will often find themselves wondering what the hell these people are on about!

Dave Mckenna said...

I think the question that follows from your comment is a good one.

Can scrutiny be effective in smaller councils? Furthermore is there a size below which the function cannot work because the resources simply are not available? The implication is also perhaps that there is a minimum level of scrutiny required before it can work well.

Of course it is not just about the level or quality if support, as you suggest, I think, the attitude of the rest of the organisation is critical.

I don't know if you are in Wales, but one the things we have working on with the Wales Audit Office, Centre for Public Scrutiny and Welsh Local Government Association is a set of 'effective scrutiny characteristics' - should be published in about a month or so and might be of some use given the issues you raise.

Dave Mckenna said...

also this tweet: https://twitter.com/CfPScrutiny/status/391895548342861824

Unknown said...

Yo Dave,

I entirely agree with all of this.

Interestingly enough on Thursday I was at the West Midlands Scrutiny Network, and we were talking about the financial outlook for councils, budget scrutiny and what the wider implications of some councils' responses to the financial situation might be.

The discussion focused a lot on commissioning and service transformation. Councils seem to be doing two things to meet the financial challenges with which they're being faced - finding more efficiencies in the way they already deliver services (so, finding efficiencies in existing processes, sharing services, working better with partners, and in some cases unstrategic salami-slicing) and secondly, trying to be more innovative in the way they deliver services in the future. This second trend is more fundamental - commissioning is at the heart of this, as is the need for councils to pool meaningful budgets and carry out joint decision-making with a number of other public, private and third sector bodies.

In a way, for scrutiny this represents a challenge to the "traditional" way of doing things. To make a difference in this new agenda we have to recognise that the first and fourth of the Ashworth & Snape roles may need to merge. Scrutiny of the executive will, inevitably, involve scrutiny of external partners too, as they will be intimately involved in both the design and delivery of what we might previously have described as "council" services.

With this happening, council spend, outcomes and priorities become much more difficult to ascertain. There'll be more of a collective responsibility for performance - and for risk. Moreover, this responsibility will be exercised in a different way. Whereas in the past, decisions have been made through formal council processes - at Cabinet, at Full Council, and (in Wales) at LSB meetings for which there is a modicum of openness, in future some of these partnership arrangements may be more diffuse and opaque. I think this is more of a risk in England, as the Government in Wales are taking a more hands-on approach to designing the way that councils work in partnership, but there's still a risk that scrutiny gets lost in a complex landscape of contracts, multilateral agreements of varying levels of formality, and confusion about where its responsibilities and role actually lies.

In this context I think that the three roles you set out are vital because they deliberately don't relate *just* to the council. They recognise how scrutiny can bring a unique perspective to this mess of partnership decision-making and, possibly, knit some of it together. Innovation is about working with the council and its partners to redesign services - as you say a step change from what we call "policy development" because the approaches to service design, over the next couple of years, will be much more wide-ranging. Scrutiny can help to challenge assumptions being made by decision-makers and ensure the public's views are accurately reflected in decisions made in their name. This will be particularly vital for commissioning arrangements, which (and many councils don't fully realise this) will require councils to think, "why are we delivering this service? What do we want it to look like, now and in the future?" - questions that are bound to cause local controversy and which have to be thrashed out fully, on the basis of evidence-based argument. So "innovation" here ties in closely to how commissioning arrangements are specified - which has until now been very much an officer-led, technocratic process. This is where "engagement" comes in too.

This is going to take two posts...

Unknown said...

The other side of the coin is "regulation". This is about keeping track of the impacts and outcomes for local people. Hopefully, if we've been able to work closely with decision-makers at the specification stage, we've managed to build in some robust performance management arrangements - not traditional scorecard-based metrics, but measures that actually reflect how the services are delivered on the ground and what service users actually need. Much of the technical contract management stuff would still be done by the council and its partners - but there is a real opportunity to build in more formal arrangements for scrutiny to be able to address performance, finance and risk concerns by exception.

In England, the LGA has suggested that finance powers should be devolved by central Government to allow local areas to set up "local treasuries" - pooled budgets from which services will be commissioned and delivered. I suppose that this is an evolution of what we used to call Total Place, and what the Government in England call "community budgeting" - it also has echoes in the Welsh Government's approach to collaboration (although WG's approach is subject to more central controls). Even if this doesn't happen, we will inevitably see more pooling, which will see such "treasuries" being set up in de facto terms. Either approach will require strong scrutiny. It's been suggested that the bolstering of scrutiny committees to act as local versions of the Public Accounts Committee in the House of Commons - independent bodies with a formal role to investigate VfM - might provide the necessary accountability here.

But all this depends on two things - 1) resources (because I think it will take effort to persuade executives and their partners that they need more robust governance arrangements for these partnership arrangements) and 2) cultural acceptance that stronger scrutiny can make a positive difference. I see too little of the latter - execs still see scrutiny as an unnecessary burden, holding to the traditional view that the function is the political equivalent of picking oakum for members who would otherwise have too much time on their hands. This is endlessly frustrating when there are so many excellent examples of scrutiny being ready to step up to play a central part in some of this transformation, service redesign and commissioning "stuff" - but it's natural that execs will want to keep scrutiny away from these areas given the potential political risks.

I think that there may be a third challenge in getting practitioners themselves to understand the opportunities here, and that they're achievable rather than being just pie-in-the-sky thinking propagated by people at CfPS and elsewhere who've forgotten what it's really like to "do scrutiny" on the front line!

On the resourcing point, I think that the argument that scrutiny is, by its very nature, ineffective is increasingly untenable. But scrutiny poorly resourced risks becoming ineffective.

Dave Mckenna said...

Great analysis Ed, I particularly like the point about incorporating the partnership dimension into all scrutiny work. As you say, if cabinet roles are incorporated clearly into the wider 'web of accountability' then partnership scrutiny makes much more sense. Perhaps a little way away from that yet though!

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