Headlines: November 20th, 2002

Councils are making steady, and in some cases spectacular progress, in areas such as e-Government. Much less progress is being made in changing political processes and the culture that surrounds them. The changed processes have brought a new role of overview and scrutiny for councillors and this role potentially places them at the heart of policy-making and at the heart of the way in which councils respond to the demands of modernization. A report from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister reveals disquiet in Whitehall about the way the new processes are working.All councils have now changed their political management arrangements and replaced the ‘committee system’ with a cabinet of councillors with an executive leader, or one of the other alternative structures. The introduction of the new political management arrangements fundamentally challenge familiar ways of working and changing the committee system culture is proving extremely difficult.

Through the overview and scrutiny role councillors hold decision-makers to account, but holding fellow councillors to account in a transparent and rigorous manner is not part of the traditional behaviour and culture. Some scrutiny committees also take a narrow and reactive approach to an agenda set by the executive or policy committee itself. Cabinet members are dismissive of this approach and view it as ‘nitpicking’ over detailed issues. The report notes that it is still common for overview and scrutiny committees to operate almost as traditional service committees ‘in disguise’.

Overview and scrutiny committees also face challenges from council officers. In some cases decision-makers and senior officers seek to smother the effectiveness of committees. In other cases executives ‘stone wall’ to limit the influence and effectiveness of committees.

The report urges councils to develop effective processes and seek tangible outcomes, but it makes it clear that how this is done is a matter for each council.