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.
InnovationI 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.
RegulationScrutiny 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.
EngagementPublic 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