This post sets out my take on how to design a scrutiny work programme so that it’s focussed on the right issues and has the support of everyone involved.
Designing a work programme is one of the most important activities for anyone involved in scrutiny.
A good work programme ensures that scrutiny is focussing on the things that matter most and is making the best use of scarce time and resources. More than this, when it’s done right, the process of designing a work programme can promote transparency and public participation and be a positive demonstration of good governance.
While every process will be different – and quite rightly so, because every organisation is different – there are some fundamentals that underpin every good process.
Finally, while this is written with local government scrutiny in mind, it should also be helpful for housing association tenants, school governors or anyone else in a scrutiny role.
When designing a work programme it’s helpful to bear in mind that:
- Work planning is an ongoing process not a one off event. Things change so you need to leave space to be flexible. And this means giving your work programme proper attention – not just ‘nodding it through. There should be time set aside at every regular meeting to talk about the work programme to ensure it stays relevant.
- Work planning is an activity for the whole team – not just the chair or the majority group – scrutiny activity will be more effective down the line if everyone has been involved in the development of the work programme
- Like any aspect of governance, work planning should be an ongoing conversation with others – whether the public, the organisation, regulators or partners to name just a few
- The design of the work programme will need to be changed as time goes on. There is no perfect template that will work for everyone and it’s important to regularly test whether it works. It’s always a work in progress so don’t be afraid to experiment with the way it’s set out or presented. Regularly ask ‘is it useful?’ and ‘Does it do what we need it to do?’
Thinking about impact
As the aim of the work programme is to ensure that scrutiny makes the biggest impact possible – so it’s useful to talk about what this means. I like to think about impact like this:
Addressing the biggest issues of concern that are not being tackled by anyone else.
If you have different version that’s fine – better even. What matters is that impact, however you define it, provides a focus for your scrutiny activity. Your definition will also be helpful when it comes to evaluating and reviewing the work that you have done.
Designing the work programme
The initial development of a work programme can be divided into three stages; mapping concerns, prioritising topics and matching activities to topics.
1. Mapping concerns
This is the discovery phase of designing the work programme.
I like to use the ‘four conversations’ (public, corporate, regulatory and partnership) when thinking about the information that needs to be gathered and who to talk to.
Of course time and resources will dictate how much you can do but, the more time you spend discovering concerns, the better the work programme will be. It’s always good to do the work in public if you can whenever but you may prefer to do this informally and report back – or ask those providing support to do it for you.
Here are some ideas for discovering concerns:
The public – citizens and service users
- Invite people to talk to you or go and meet them where they are
- Use social media
- Commission surveys
- Use the results of other surveys
- Draw on anecdotal evidence from your own experience – as councillors, for example, you will have a good sense of what is going on on the ground
Corporate and performance
- Invite cabinet members / senior officers to come and talk to you
- Research annual reports and corporate strategies
- Research performance reports
- Survey staff
- Consider your council’s forward plan – particularly the cabinet items
Regulators and government
- Invite regulators or inspectors to speak to you
- Research inspection and regulatory reports
- See what select committees are looking at
- Check out what issues government is consulting on
- Ask MPs or members of devolved parliaments for their views
- Invite them to a meeting
- Survey them
- Research partnership reports and minutes
- Research the annual reports and strategies of partner organisations
- Talk to scrutineers in nearby councils
Oh, and don’t forget to revisit your last work programme if you have one. There may be issues that you were unable to tackle, or new issues that came out of the work that you did. This should all go into the pot.
2. Prioritising topics
Having collected lots of concerns the next step is to identify the most significant.
This can be done at a meeting or, even better, at a conference involving others. Consider inviting those involved in audit roles for example, or other backbench councillors.
Again, you should prioritise in the way that you find most helpful. If you are looking for ideas you could consider this three stage process:
a) Providing everyone with a list of issues thrown up by the discovery stage showing where each has come from
b) Working in small groups or pairs to identify the issues that:
- Have been raised in more than one place
- Affect the widest group of people
- Have the greatest effect on individuals
c) Each group can be challenged to identify three issues that match one or more of these criteria and feed them back.
These can then be incorporated into the work programme or, if another stage is needed, consider the use of dot voting on wall charts, or another method, to allow each individual to express their preferences that can then be added up.
Even better put a short list back to the public and invite them to vote with the promise that the best supported issues will be acted upon.
3. Matching activities to topics
Having prioritised a smaller number of issues the next challenge is to shape them into practical activities. Each scrutiny context is different, however there will be alternative ways for scrutiny work to get done and for recommendations to be made.
Consider, for example, which issues of concern will be best addressed by:
- In depth inquiry work
- Peformance monitoring
- One off task and finish
- Mystery shopping
- Calling in a report before a decision is made by the governing body, cabinet or board
- Calling for a new report to be produced that can be discussed at a meeting
It makes sense for this to be done, in the first instance, by the chair working with support officers or at least a smaller group.
It is important at this stage to filter out the issues that are being looked at by others elsewhere. This can be done by talking to officers. These issues should not be lost, however. They should still be captured in the work programme and revisited. You will want to know what the outcomes of these other processes has been – you may then want to pick them up again if you are unsatisfied.
Your work programme needs to be organic and tested regularly.
This goes not just for the contents – but for the way it looks, how it is presented on the printed page, how it is published online – in other words how usable it is.
It’s good to regularly ask the committee or task group ‘how helpful is this format for you?’ and ‘what could be better?’.
In terms of format it may be that a simple one page timetable is sufficient. For a committee dealing with a number of strands of work, maybe employing task and finish groups, for example, a more complex format will be needed. The key thing is that the members of the committee can easily follow what’s happening and are able to suggest ideas.
If there is silence each time the work programme is discussed then it probable needs a rework.
And finally, where the work programme goes on your agenda is also part of the design.
If it’s important to you (and it should be!) then maybe it should be the first thing you discuss. It doesn’t need to get in the way of the main items as long as you keep to a time limit. But at least it’s being considered while everyone is fresh and not at the end, when everyone is itching to leave.
By the way, if this is something you think I might be able to help you with, drop me a line on my contact page.