Scrutiny, whether in local government or elsewhere, can be about so much more than reviewing decisions. And yet this narrow view often limits the work that scrutineers do and the way that they do it. But, with a little imagination, the role can add extra value to councils (and other governing bodies) and be more rewarding for those doing the scrutiny.
Not Just Looking Backwards
As a scrutiny team manager in a local council for many years I often heard scrutiny described as ‘the way we look back and review decisions’. This is, of course, an important aspect of scrutiny but is far from the only thing that scrutiny does. Indeed, thinking about scrutiny only in this way leads to a very formal process, often with reports being presented in formal meetings by officers and cabinet members in defensive mode.
Scrutiny (and I often wish we could find a better word) is first and foremost a mechanism for engaging all of those councillors who are not in the Cabinet. While all of these backbenchers may want to get involved in policy making and supporting service delivery in some way, not all want to get involved in the narrow version of scrutiny. Different councillors have different things they can offer and different interests they want to pursue.
Swiss Army Scrutiny
Instead of the narrow view, we need to think of scrutiny more like a Swiss Army Knife with a range of different tools to do a range of different tasks. Indeed, if you look around different councils you will see scrutiny councillors working in many different ways and doing many different things. For example:
- Policy development ‘task and finish’ groups that gather evidence and report their recommendations
- One off public hearings that capture local views around issues of concern
- Performance monitoring panels that receive and challenge reports about service delivery
- Question and answer sessions to hold cabinet members and other decision makers to account
For every different task there are different ways of doing things. Yes, formal committee settings are very important sometimes. But informal meetings have their place as well. While the rules (formal and informal) that shape how scrutiny operate differ from council to council, they can always be tested and queried. And I bet you can always find another council doing something differently if you need an example to help you make your case.
And why be limited to those councillors appointed to scrutiny committees? There is no reason to exclude other councillors if they have something to offer. Involve them as co-optees or simply informally.
After all, backbench councillors are a valuable resource and local councils are hardly in a position to let their resources go to waste.
So think creatively.
Think about how your council can use Swiss-Army scrutiny.