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Friday, 3 January 2014

64. Treat scrutiny support as professional practice

As a scrutiny support team we have been thinking about our work as professional practice, trying to get underneath what this means and considering how we can improve what we do.  I’m not sure everyone sees scrutiny support in this way.  It suffers from being a mix of different roles and can often be mistaken as a sub set of committee support.  Now that scrutiny is coming of age, however, isn't it time to recognise that scrutiny support is a professional practice in its own right?


In defining our professional practice we started with the list of five core competencies that came out of work on the role of the professional scrutiny officer done by the University of Warwick and the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

This is our slightly tweaked list of those five competencies:

  • Research – E.g. Undertaking and coordinating research activities.  Gathering and analysing evidence from a range of sources.  Managing public engagement activities.  
  • Communication – E.g. Managing meetings and facilitating communication between key individuals and groups involved in scrutiny projects.  Producing reports that clearly and succinctly reflect councillors’ views and Inquiry findings.  Sharing the work of scrutiny through social media and traditional channels.   
  • Political Environment – E.g. Working within a sensitive political environment and providing advice to cross party groups of councillors.  Providing diplomatic challenge to all parties as well as knowledge of how and when to share information appropriately.  
  • Project Management – E.g. Being able to scope, plan, manage, review and evaluate scrutiny projects with councillors. Working within a wider scrutiny work programme. 
  • Relationship Management – E.g. Building networks and effective working relationships with councillors, officers and external stakeholders.  Sourcing and sharing relevant knowledge and information.  Acting as a public point of contact. 

These competencies, which together make up the 'meta role' of the scrutiny professional, are reflected in our job descriptions and provide the focus for 1-2-1 supervision and discussions in team meetings.

Professional Practice

While I’m not sure there is a single definition of what makes something a professional practice, there are a number of aspects of scrutiny support that make me think that it is one.  As well as a core set of competencies it is certainly a specialised field that requires a significant knowledge base and a commitment to continuous development.  Scrutiny practitioners have to gain expertise in particular topic areas as well as in the practice of scrutiny itself.

Scrutiny Officers Development Project

In Wales, the Scrutiny Officers Development Project, being delivered in conjunction with a new Post Graduate Certificate in Governance,  is an important and welcome step towards underlining the professional nature of scrutiny practice.  This pilot project, supported by the Welsh Government, is being led by the scrutiny team in Cardiff Council in partnership with the University of South Wales.  It is providing an accredited Masters level course that supports scrutiny practice and, by drawing together a group of scrutiny officers as participants that together represent the majority of Councils in Wales, it should also provide an excellent opportunity for shared learning.

Professional Values

As well as expertise and skills I would argue that there is also a core set of professional values underpinning scrutiny support even if these are not always well articulated.  These include a commitment to the democratic process, independence of thought, evidence based policy making, openness, impartiality and fairness.  It seems to me that these all operate at the heart of our professional practice.

Of course I’m not claiming that scrutiny support is a profession in the same way as nursing, planning or teaching.  While professional networks are taking shape there is no formal professional body, no Institute of Scrutiny Officers, providing accreditation or bending the ear of central government.  Indeed, the research conducted by Warwick Business School and the Centre for Public Scrutiny mentioned above found ambivalence towards the idea from practitioners although, five years later, perhaps things may have shifted a little.

One achievable step forward, however, would be to gain greater recognition from councillors and other officers in local government that scrutiny support is indeed a distinct professional occupation.  This will not only ensure increased respect for the function and the people who support it but will also help bring greater attention on the capacity and effectiveness of the scrutiny function as a whole.

Photo: @catherinefarre


Unknown said...

I think that there are two challenges here.

1. Scrutiny as a career. Many organisations will have two or three scrutiny officers, with a scrutiny manager if they're lucky. The "profession" doesn't offer much in terms of career progression and (more research needed here, this is guesswork) many seem to gravitate away from the function after a few years - internal promotion, redundancy, job redesign, other factors. Corporate policy is a popular destination.

2. Buy-in from others. We may agree on the professional characteristics of the scrutiny officer role but many others in many authorities won't. The mix and match approach which sees scrutiny rolled in with the corporate policy role or democratic services makes it difficult to identify common characteristics between officers based on their competencies and duties in the way that you might be able to for a social worker, for example (or even a democratic services officer). This local uncertainty about the nature of the role I think works against any meaningful, common understanding about what scrutiny officers do - despite the work that we and others have done, and are doing, on the subject.

I think point 2 relates most closely to your conclusion. But I think it difficult because recognition that scrutiny support is a distinct professional occupation implies an acceptance that you need to employ a distinct professional to do it, and as we know many authorities are trying not to, or are trying to downgrade the role.

On a wider point we did think seriously about becoming a professional organisation for scrutiny officers back in 2009/10 but as you say levels of interest were limited. I'm not sure if that has changed much in the interim. Since 2010, ADSO has been established which, despite its dem services focus, has set itself out as a membership body for scrutiny officers too. I don't have access to information on how many scrutiny officers are ADSO members, though.

Dave Mckenna said...

Certainly agree with your first point. It is important to be clear that the argument here is about scrutiny support as a professional practice rather than as a profession per se. Nothing wrong with that of course - something that people might drop in and out of - like corporate policy - rather than spend their lives doing. But while they are there it needs to be recognised as something that is inherently professional.

Your second point is the key one. While the role is 'subject to debate' it is always going to be vulnerable and yes, where roles are mixed with others I think this is a real problem. I don't think it matters where scrutiny support sits if the roles are kept distinct (I'm a corporate policy type of guy myself).

The obvious conclusion for me is that we need to do more to promote a common, single understanding of the role that reflects the 5 competencies. Does this sound a bit like a campaign? Maybe it is!

Laura Latham said...

My view is that scrutiny sits as part of the broader Democratic Services profession. The skills listed above are those required across many areas of local government in varying combinations. There was no ''scrutiny school required' in 2000 was there? In many areas I suspect existing democratic and policy staff adapted existing skills to fit the new brief.
Surely given the pressures in local government at the moment, scrutiny officers should be looking broader than that work stream alone? Whilst headcount in many councils is reducing, a purist approach to scrutiny would not seem to be conducive to cross and upskilling to survive?!? In many smaller authorities I suspect pure scrutiny officers has not been a luxury many could have had at any time in the past
As Ed says, the limited career progression opportunities for scrutiny officers means that those wishing to climb the ladder invariably get stuck at Scrutiny Manager level and need to broaden their horizons to progress onwards and upwards. I would suggest therefore that in my experience a combined approach to scrutiny is preferable to separate roles. This not only benefits the officers skills but twin hatted approaches also, create more efficient, effective and financially sustainable approaches to scrutiny.
In terms of its work ADSO represents those working in all areas of democratic support with a significant number if it's members indicating scrutiny support as part of their roles. I would suggest that any campaign at the moment should focus on promoting governance and scrutiny as a package through collaborative work rather than trying to separate them out and potentially diluting any impact.

Unknown said...

I just wrote an exceptionally long response to this which my computer helpfully deleted. Probably no bad thing.

The jist was - I agree with Laura, "good governance" is the argument to make, rather than something exclusively about scrutiny. It's about the values, attitudes and behaviours that those people supporting scrutiny bring to the role - and their skills and competencies - rather than trying to define the ideal JD of an officer who does nothing but scrutiny.

But there are two political realities. Firstly, the fact that increasingly twin-hatting is the only game in town, for resource reasons but also because many authorities do indeed find it an effective way to do scrutiny. Secondly, the fact that in some authorities twin-hatting ends up meaning that a DSO with scrutiny responsibilities spends most of their time on committee administration - they're supporting quasi-judicial and regulatory committees as well as scrutiny committees, perhaps, and the meat of scrutiny work - carrying out reviews, even focused ones that try to focus on outcomes, is pushed to the side. Success in twin-hatting is I think dependent on the organisational culture of the authority and it's on culture that any campaign should focus. It's certainly what our work with the LGA focuses on very strongly.

Matt K said...

I’d agree with what Laura and Ed have said.

Scrutiny isn’t a new religion. It wasn’t in 2000. Your core competencies and values have been at the core of many others' roles long before scrutiny was conceived. As someone who works for two so-called smaller authorities I would expect everybody in my organisation, from a chief officer’s secretary upwards, to be able to display the skills you’ve outlined.

Mutability, not specialism, is the key to survival in local government version 20.14.

Democratic services have survived and in some cases grown because, contrary to some belief, they don’t just write the minutes … As well as supporting the member and committee process, scrutiny and standards, the service has flourished by taking on a number of new and developing areas – data protection, licensing, health and well being and community rights to name but four.

I always thought that CfPS not becoming a membership body was a missed opportunity but I’m sure they had their reasons. I get it that people don’t want to pay membership fees. But, as ADSO has shown, if those fees and training costs are reasonable people do see the benefits of being part of a bigger, structured organisation.

Dave Mckenna said...

Mmmm. I’d like to challenge some of the well made comments above. Not least because they address some important issues and have really got me thinking!

The first point is that while the career prospects of officers is important, particularly in terms of motivation and well-being, shouldn't the question be ‘what makes for the most effective scrutiny function?’ I’m not sure that we should be designing occupations on the basis of what would make people more employable when they leave. A risk of creating a self fulfilling prophesy perhaps?

Having said that I actually think being associated with a recognised professional activity enhances job prospects. For me the problem is that scrutiny support is too nebulous and is something that people don’t understand. We should be celebrating its uniqueness and professional nature not deconstructing the role as something generic that ‘anyone could do anyway’: “You worked in scrutiny support you say? Impressive!”

The challenge of providing scrutiny support in small councils has been raised before. To be honest I’m not sure I know what the answer is (regional teams maybe?) but should that be our starting point in designing the ideal support service?

In terms of wearing ‘two hats’ (I know about this because that’s what I do) I think this makes it more important to have a clearly defined scrutiny hat otherwise you end up wearing one very messy mixed up hat – like a baseball cap with a sombrero rim or a woolly bowler.

Then there is a wider question of whether scrutiny support is a subset of democratic services. Forgive me if I don’t know enough about it, but isn't democratic services normally associated with ‘political environment’ and ‘project management’ rather than the other competencies I have associated with scrutiny? If there is a new role emerging, different to the traditional committee clerk, then I would be interested in learning more.

I guess the part that worries me most is the suggestion that anyone can do research or communication or even relationship management. I think this seriously underestimates how challenging those roles are. I am sure that the specialists in those particular fields would challenge that contention.

And no, scrutiny isn't a new religion. But I do consider it to be an important and valuable aspect of local democracy; one that requires dedicated, specialist and professional support.

John Austin said...

I agree with Laura, Matt and Ed. I am an advocate of scrutiny. I have worked in scrutiny within my authority (LB of Enfield) and now have it within management remit. Scrutiny in Enfield has grown for two main reasons. Firstly members can see the real benefits of being hands on and making a difference in their communities. It has without doubt enhanced the role of the non-executive member. Secondly, staff within the scrutiny team have been very willing to diversify and have taken on new roles such as community outreach and providing democratic services support.. They still however spend a large part of their time on scrutiny work and rightly regard themselves as experts in their field. We won two national awards in 2012 as a result, including the MJ awards. Out of choice, I would have retained a separate scrutiny team but the financial realities made this impossible. So we made the best of what we were given. Scrutiny can still function effectively but the days of it being a dedicated function with its own staff have in my view gone. This does not however mean that the value or status of scrutiny, or the staff who work within it, should suffer.

I am chairman of ADSO. We have large numbers of members who cross both the scrutiny and democratic services functions. They find that ADSO meets their needs on both counts. Membership numbers have grown consistently since we were formed. Laura is correct when she says that scrutiny is part of the broader democratic services profession and I would argue strongly that it is in its best interests to be so.

John Austin, ADSO Chairman

Laura Latham said...

Just coming back on a few of the points you've raised Dave....

As regards anybody being able to do scrutiny support - I dont think that's what I was trying to say. I dont think anybody can just 'do' any work at the political frontline without having certain skills (mostly soft skills) which make them successful in their roles. I would say this applies whether you are a pure scrutiny officer or a democratic services officer. So I dont think there is a distinction to be made.

You make the point about the new role of a committee clerk emerging.... What for you is new?

I have worked in Democratic Services for 10 years and never in those 10 years have I ever associated myself with a traditional committee clerk role. (Being associated as a Committee Clerk and nothing more does rile me I have to say!) This is also one of the things I am particularly passionate about as an ADSO Director - promoting the value of Democratic Services and its relevance as a modern profession.

Indeed yes I would coordinate the meeting arrangements and meet the statutory requirements but that isnt where it stops.

Surely a traditional committee clerk would look to a lawyer for advice rather than take control in the meeting? Not any more, the new Democratic Services Officer is skilled to deal with procedural and legal issues and would deal with it confidently and competently. I would go as far to say in many cases, when it comes to Local Govt Meetings and Access to Information Laws, the knowledge of Democratic Services staff exceeds that of some lawyers.

If research was required or benchmarking? Would I go to policy? No I wouldn't I'd do it myself.

If a project needs engagement, championing or communicating.... or outreach in the community was required, I'd do that as a Democratic Services Officer too.

If relationships need brokering between Members or between Officers and Members - who would do that? Me as a Democratic Services Officer.

And as Matt and John have said, Democratic Services teams are diversifying, taking on new responsibilities and in the case of some (ourselves at Richmond) are bringing income into the Authority for a range of different Democratic Support Services provided to stakeholders. This may not have happened 10 years ago but its been happening for at least the last 3/4 on an increasingly widespread basis.

I agree with your concluding comment in part where you say: 'But I do consider it to be an important and valuable aspect of local democracy; one that requires dedicated, specialist and professional support.' For me, this applies to all support services provided for local democracy, of which scrutiny plays its part alongside democratic services, member support, civic support and support for community governance.

Dave Mckenna said...

Laura / John thanks for these thoughtful responses (particularly good to hear an Enfield voice - I'm product of that particular comprehensive school system!)

I don’t think we are so far apart on this stuff. I hope we can agree that scrutiny support is a specialism and that in an ideal world scrutiny support would be provided by a dedicated team although I accept in reality, of course, that this isn’t always possible. Actually I’m not sure my original post was about dedicated teams (although that’s my preference) but rather recognition of a distinct practice – people can do other things but, when they are doing scrutiny support this is how they do it….

Two things I’ve been pondering after reflecting on your comments:

First whether scrutiny looks very different in England than it does in Wales? Although reductions are only just beginning to bite here, this may be counterbalanced to some degree by a strong national advocacy of scrutiny (see the recent Williams Commission report for example). A case of significant policy divergence perhaps?

Second I wonder whether ‘democratic services’ is sometimes used to mean two different things? Sometimes it means the ‘committee support’ function and sometimes it describes a profession/function that is an umbrella for both committee support and scrutiny (and includes member support, civic support etc etc). It is very different to say that scrutiny should be incorporated into committee support than it is to say that each is part of something that is greater than both.

I think that the wider question that follows is about how democratic support services are changing and how they will change in future. As well as the new skills and flexibilities you mention there is also the whole digital / democratic engagement agenda. It feels like there has been more change in the last decade than in the previous 70 years. Clearly ADSO have been thinking about this but I’m not sure there is a single shared vision yet of what ‘democracy support’ will look like in 10 or 20 years time.

Blog post anyone?

Matthew Mannion said...

I won't add too much to the above or you'll feel like you are being ambushed by ADSO people but I particularly wanted to pick up on Laura's point just above where she lists all the different types of work that are now expected from what would previously have been the 'clerk'. I think she is absolutely right that this is where we are heading although I think it is still an aspiration rather than a reality in many places, although we all hope to catch up.

You are right Dave that 'Democratic Services' can be seen another name for an old school committe clerk but I think that there are fewer and fewer of those around. Quite possibly our next challenge is convincing everyone else that we have wider skills these days so that the image changes (and maybe Scrutiny will clamour to be part of Democratic Serivces :-)).

ADSO spends quite a lot of time looking at these issues. E.g. in April at the London Group's seminar we hope to spend some time looking at democratic engagement and reengineering the service and hopefully encouraging people from outside local authorities to tell us what it should look like. Maybe after more events like that we'll increase our grasp of where we are going.

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