Features: October 24th, 2003

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Scrutiny

By Jo Dungey

New opportunities for dialogue about local services and issues are being developed, with the introduction of changed political structures in councils. A new scrutiny role is developing which can offer opportunities to look at the bigger picture locally. Sustainability and environmental improvement are just the type of boundary-crossing issues which can benefit from this approach. In this article I explain the scrutiny function, review its implementation and give examples of outside involvement in scrutiny. Finally I propose some ways of maximising the effectiveness of the scrutiny function.

The new decision-making structures have an executive which is responsible for providing leadership and making decisions about services. A maximum of ten councillors have this role. Other councillors have a decision-making role as members of the council, are representatives of their wards and have the new role of ‘scrutiny’. This encompasses a range of activities:

  • Holding the executive to account including review of proposed executive decisions, and call-in of decisions prior to implementation
  • Review and development of policy, making policy and budget proposals to the executive and to the council
  • Performance monitoring and review
  • Reviewing services, which can include best value reviews
  • Scrutiny of the community strategy
  • Scrutiny of other local organisations and services (including the National Health Service) and of any wider issues which impact on the area.

Councils have a great deal of choice as to how they organise the scrutiny role. The legal minimum, that is one scrutiny committee covering all issues and services, is unusual outside small councils. Most councils have some thematic committees (often matching executive portfolios such as education or environment). There is often a scrutiny management board or an informal coordinating body (generally a chairs’ meeting). An alternative approach is to set up time-limited panels for particular scrutiny investigations which report to the permanent scrutiny committee(s). Separate bodies for policy development and scrutiny are another possibility.

How’s it going?

The new constitutions are still in the early days but there is already a lot of good practice as well as some problems. When the legislation was introduced, the emphasis was on streamlined leadership and the specific arguments about mayors. Many councillors who did not have executive roles felt excluded. Now some councils are developing the scrutiny role with imagination and flexibility, but in others it is still weak.

Successful scrutiny needs a complete rethink of the member role and of traditional committee practice. It is a chance to move away from detailed management of services and look at service outcomes and other local issues from a more community-oriented point of view. As shown below, scrutiny committees are finding new ways to work and to involve local people and organisations. Scrutiny can involve a sharp challenge to the executive, or at other times a cooperative role, where non-executive members have the scope to stand back and investigate an issue in depth, making recommendations for change to the executive.

In some councils a strong majority party inhibits the scrutiny role and there is a lot of political pressure not to challenge the executive. Scrutiny can be a challenge to the officer culture as well, and councillors may get little or no support to openly deliberate service problems and find alternatives. Drawing in ideas and expertise from beyond the council can open up the debate.

External involvement in scrutiny

Some of the most positive innovations so far are where scrutiny provides a framework for different forms of engagement with local people. This may have particular value in promoting action on sustainability where local people and organisations have ideas and knowledge and need to be involved in making change happen. Options for community involvement in scrutiny already being tried are considered below.

In Bristol, co-optees are drawn from organisations with which the council has had an ongoing relationship such as tenants, the chamber of commerce, trade unions, the voluntary sector, the civic society, housing associations, equalities campaigns and so on.

A London Borough of Camden enquiry into local flooding of homes was advised by a professor heading an academic flood hazards centre. In the London Borough of Hounslow a review on greening the workplace used as an adviser an expert on energy management from Brunel University.

Hear evidence

Scrutiny reviews take an investigative approach and can hear evidence and ideas from local people and organisations. Cumbria carried out an enquiry into sea fisheries: evidence was heard from local people, as well as a representative from the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

A scrutiny review in Hounslow looked at street works by statutory undertakings. The review heard evidence from Thames Water, British Gas and the London Borough of Camden which is carrying out a pilot into lane charging.

A scrutiny review in Warrington worked with other local organisations to find ways to reduce deaths and casualties from road collisions. Council staff from a variety of services, as well as the police, fire service, hospital and magistrates, all took part.

Public consultation

Scrutiny reviews can initiate public consultation. In Bristol, the council set up a select committee to investigate improving bus services. This commissioned focus groups of bus users and non-users and heard from a wide range of witnesses.

A planning application to develop a waste incinerator proved very controversial in Milton Keynes. As a result of public concern, scrutiny councillors held a public meeting to investigate alternative ways of dealing with the problem of waste. Several hundred people came. Experts from inside and outside the council including a leading zero waste campaigner addressed the meeting on whether the incinerator was necessary and what alternatives there might be to it.

An investigation into provision of parking for disabled people in the London Borough of Newham worked with an organisation representing disabled people to draw up a questionnaire on this service. This was sent to every holder of a permit for a disabled parking bay in Newham and over a thousand replies were received.

In the London Borough of Camden a panel looking at the problems of the school run not only made site visits, but also viewed a video made by local residents. This illustrated the daily problems caused by the volume of traffic and inconsiderate drivers.

Seven processes

These are just some typical and, in some cases, small examples of the type of approach which can be taken. There is still much to learn and to try, before we can really say what works. However, based on work for a new publication Scrutiny solutions I suggest the following as ‘seven habits of highly effective scrutiny’:

  1. Find new ways to work: investigate, deliberate, consult, get out of the building and don’t be restricted by formal meetings
  2. Bring new voices and therefore viewpoints into dialogue with councillors
  3. Recognise the role of party politics, but try not to let it be a straight-jacket; both challenge and cooperation have their place
  4. Look beyond the council: focus on issues affecting the whole community, on non-council services and on bringing other local organisations into dialogue about problems
  5. Plan, prioritise and coordinate, and don’t duplicate other types of reviews and inspections
  6. Build support and find allies among executive members, service managers and external organisations to achieve change
  7. Review the effectiveness of scrutiny, learn and change if necessary.

Scrutiny Solutions. The examples in this article are based on work for a new LGIU publication, Scrutiny Solutions. This also discusses new skills coullcillors need to develop and their communication and information needs. It includes a summary of the legal framework for scrutiny for England and Wales. Copies of the publication can be ordered from Central Books, 99 Wallis Road, London E9 5LN, email: mo@centralbooks.com or telephone 0845 9910 at ? for LGIU affiliates, (?for non-affiliates). For online orders go to www.lgiu.gov.uk.

Jo Dungey is with the Local Government Information Unit, jo.dungey@lgiu.org.uk.

This article was first published in ‘eg: promoting local sustainable development’ Eg is published ten times a year by the University of Westminster. For information on subscription visit www.wmin.ac.uk/eric/ , or contact CIRCA subscriptions on 01223 564334.’