When I wrote about The Seven Scrutiny Powers, I had a reply on twitter mentioning kryptonite. And I thought, yes, we should be talking about this – aspects of local government culture that neutralise the seven scrutiny superpowers (transparency, accountability, participation, solutions, calling-in, assurance and capacity).
This may seem negative but think of it it as an anti-problem. If we wanted to ensure scrutiny was completely ineffective what would we do? Then we can do exactly the opposite of course.
I’m not claiming that any of this is necessarily intentional. Rather I suspect that these are culturally convenient ways of doing things that develop, maybe even unconsciously, over time. So, there is no supervillan, but these kryptonite will be recognisable to anyone who has worked in the scrutiny world.
Also remember, while kryptonite has a negative effect on scrutiny, it also does damage to the rest of the organisation.
And, while each type of kryptonite neutralises some powers more than others, each type of kryptonite has some effect on every aspect of scrutiny.
So, in no particular order there they are.
The Seven Scrutiny Kryptonites
1. The party card
a.k.a. Political management
While party politics contributes to a healthy local democracy, party politicking, party cliques and the use of the party whip, can all have a negative effect. Party management can undermine accountability and call-ins by ensuring that backbenchers give executive members from the same party an easy ride and ensure that the most controversial decisions pass unchallenged.
2. The vault of secrets
a.k.a. Information restriction
The flow of information can be controlled in a number of ways including the overuse of confidentiality clauses, limited information about future cabinet decisions and a culture of keeping rather than sharing. Information restriction can hinder scrutiny as it seeks to make the organisation more transparent, and as it seeks to plan its work.
3. The deflector shield
a.k.a. Executive defensiveness
Scrutiny cannot work well if the cabinet are not open to be challenged, are inward looking or take a ‘we know best’ approach. Executive defensiveness can seriously affect the scrutiny power of accountability and render the solutions proposed from in depth inquiries of little value.
4. The room of doom
a.k.a. Poor meeting environments
The physical environment that scrutiny is given to work in can have a detrimental effect if the room or the seating arrangements are wrong. Poor meeting environments can particularly affect the power of participation by isolating the public from councillors and creating an atmosphere of over formality.
5. The cloak of invisibility
a.k.a. Limited publicity
The oxygen of publicity is important for scrutiny, not least so that the public can get involved. By offering limited or even no publicity to scrutiny, and focusing instead only on what cabinet and council are doing, scrutiny is left in the shadows and the power of participation is neutralised.
6. The game of disdain
a.k.a. Talking scrutiny down
The organisational stories that are told about scrutiny affect its status and the way people, particularly councillors, engage with it. By talking scrutiny down the ability to provide serious accountability is affected as is the potential to offer the organisation additional policy development and problem solving capacity.
7. The support stiffler
a.k.a. Restricted resources
Decisions about the resources and support available to scrutiny have a major bearing on scrutiny’s ability to work effectively. Without access to its own advice, support and research, scrutiny becomes dependent on others and limited in what it can do. When the resources that scrutiny has access to are restricted, at least in comparison, to cabinet, for example, the ability to exercise any of the seven superpowers are limited.
Thank you to @shelleyburke23 for the kryptonite idea and to @alanfinch4 @thomoli @tonybovaird @davidjabb @cfps_ed @jj_mclaughlin @vcusworthlabour @jonathanflowers @bryony1963 for their comments and suggestions.