The four conversations of good public governance

Whether you are developing a strategy, designing a work programme or solving a problem, there are four conversations the you should be having; the public, regulatory, corporate and partnership conversations. 

Good conversations are the cornerstone of good governance.  But, as a councillor, school governor or board member, who should you be talking to?

In this post I briefly set out the four conversations you should be having with suggestions about who should be included, why each conversation matters and how to take them forward.

The four conversations of public governance is a handy rule of thumb that can be applied in many situations.

1.  The public conversation

As a public body you work for the public so you want to be sure you are meeting people’s needs and doing the things they expect.

Broadly speaking you can divide the public conversation into two – those who use your services and citizens of the wider community that you serve.  You are responsible to the former for providing the services they need and accountable to the latter (maybe indirectly) for contributing to the wider public good.

Time spent trying to understand the user perspective is always time well spent. It can provide reassurance that you are doing the right things and, more often than not, unexpected insights.

In practice the public conversation might be with people that have been co-opted onto your committee or board, invited to attend meetings or through additional mechanisms such as a citizens juries or user groups or surveys.

2.  The regulation conversation

Regulators are the bodies that set the rules for how you work and will be responsible for ensuring that you operate in the right way.  Often these bodies will be providing your funding and will have powers they can use if things aren’t working as they should.  It might be that your work is overseen by a central or local government department.  Or a national regulation or inspection body. Or any combination of these.

This conversation is important to provide assurance to those that regulate and for you to understand from them what they expect.  Regulators are also in a good position to sign post to good practice and to major developments that might affect you.

It’s always good to talk to your regulators and inspectors face to face if possible.  An alternative is simply to write to them.  The conversation can also take place through reports – scrutiny reports can highlight issues for regulators just as regulators can do the same for scrutiny.

3.  The corporate conversation

This is the conversation you have with your the executives who lead your organisation and the managers that run your organisation.  They are the agenda setters and the deliverers.

It may be that you are part of a decision making body or in a scrutiny role.  Either way the corporate conversation matters if you are going to understand the strategic direction of your organisation, its policies and how well it is performing.

The corporate conversation should be the easiest to access and face to face meetings should always be possible.  However, it’s always worth talking to others in the organisation, those working at the frontline for example, to expand the conversation and get a fuller picture.

4.  The partnership conversation

No public body can operate in isolation and so it is important to talk to the various bodies that you rely on to get things done.  These include the other public services that you work with, those in the voluntary sector and the private sector.  Don’t forget to talk to those nearby organisations in the same sector as you – whether its neighbouring local councils, nearby schools or other housing associations working in the same locality.

Partners are particularly valuable for the semi independent perspective that they can bring.  They may have practical experience of working with your organisation and can give valuable feedback.  More than this they might be working to support the same people and working towards the same ends.  Finding out how others work and how they see the world can be a great way to think creatively about what you do.

Face to face is always best of course.  But why not go and visit your partners – you learn so much more about people when you visit them on their home turf.



  1. Steve McGann says:

    Dear Dr. McKenna,
    Thank you for your insights of public scrutiny. As a resident board member of my local housing ALMO, a recurring question for me is :”Which questions will best get to the root of the problem?”
    Particularly for the less-experienced scrutiny panel member, getting the right (most helpful) answers can involve a circuitous journey, which inevitably wastes valuable time which might be better applied to other areas. This circuitous journey may have more to do with the inexperience of the scrutineer than the unhelpfulness of the respondent.
    Without wishing to be cynical, if we don’t ask the right questions, we won’t get the right answers!
    Socialist politician Tony Benn famously developed his five questions (see below) about the power of those who govern.
    Using Benn’s questions as a starting point, I have tried unsuccessfully to phrase some general scrutiny questions which might, with adaption, be helpful at scrutiny committee.
    Are you aware of questions (like Benn’s) which might be useful to members of a scrutiny panel?

    PS: As an ALMO resident board member, normally, questionning is of internal business performance rather than external political initiatives.


    • Dr Dave Mckenna says:

      Hi Steve, this is a really good question!

      The first place I’d always look is on the Centre for Public Scrutiny Website – I know they have published a number of ‘question’ guides in the past although I’m not sure if there is one specifically about housing.

      More generally I love the idea of a set of general set of questions for scrutineers similar to the Benn questions – I’m sure there must be something out there – let’s see what we can find.


    • Paul Worthington says:

      Benn’s questions are useful but are quite limited and only take us so far. They can establish a person/s or organisations place, pwoers and role and their accountability, but no more than that. They can’t tell us anything about an organisation’s or individuals performance or the view of partners/stakeholders.communities/constituents on how well the individual or organisation is performing or meeting the needs of people they’re accountable to. The views and perceptions of others are key. Hence the value of the 4 governance questions posed above.

  2. Sean Fitzsimons says:

    I’m not convinced that there is a set of perfect questions out there, and the pursuit of this is actually a blind alley for scrutineers.
    The thrust of your article is about having good conversations and that is what Local govt scrutiny needs to do if it is to be effective.
    How we achieve these good conversations isn’t by having a standard set list of questions for every occasions, but getting to a place where the scrutineer has a good understanding of what good looks like in regards the area or issue they are reviewing, and then working back from that to consider what questions to ask of the organisation or person and their proposals, who are coming in front of them.
    Im essence I advocate that scrutiny needs to take a “Knowledge is power” a approach to Scrutiny.
    For example, if you look at numerous OFSTED reports on Council”s Children Social Care failing, there is a common refrain that no-one knew what’s good looks like. As Chair of Scrutiny of Scrutiny in Croydon, which failed its Ofsted last year, one of my key lessons learnt is to ensure the scrutiny councillors know what good looks like, and not fall back into the trap of just asking questions on papers in front of them.
    As an example in taking this approach further, Croydon’s Scrutiny may be looking at our Council’s digital strategy. Rather than just scrutinise the policy and senior officers, I’m meeting experts, who do this elsewhere, what they think works well, and what should we be looking out for in the new proposals. These conversations with a purpose, should give scrutineers the knowledge to ask challenging questions, and formulate strong recommendations.
    This approach itself has its constraints, but is a better approach than just concentrating on improving questioning skills, which too many people in local government is the key skill Scrutiny councillors need to have. Indeed probably the only question a Scrutiny Chair or officer need to ask is how does scrutiny get the knowledge so that we can hold a conversation at the meeting, so we can make a judgement as to whether the proposal or current system is good or not.

    • Dr Dave Mckenna says:

      Hi Sean, I think these are all excellent points. As you suggest, good questioning can’t be just a case of robotically reeling out off-the-shelf questions but is much more about having a robust process and working in context. I would be interested to know what would be helpful? I do think that sometime checklists can be useful, for example, even if they are questions to ask about the questions to ask. If you see what I mean…

      • Steve McGann says:

        Dear Paul (and Dave and Sean),
        Thank you so much for your views. I must confess that mine was a deliberately open-ended one to which I clearly do not know the answer – partly because I wanted to stimulate a discussion about how we, the inexperienced, might best be more effective.
        For the informed, the questions to be posed are probably self-evident. For the less informed, like myself, it is not so.
        Yes, Benn’s question are a starting point, an ouvre for discussion. The complex, somewhat unforgiving world, however, in which we work requires informed challenge.
        In the case of an inexperienced (uninformed) member of a scrutiny committee, where to start? For a heartbeat, I do not encourage a checklist approach, which might just be going through the motions. In reality, how many of us had questioned the integrity of the cladding on our tower blocks pre-Grenfell, the reality of the offending record of potential paedophiles working with vulnerable people or the real ability of our respective organisations to meet pensions obligations ? These are perhaps extreme examples, however, in the scrutiny role, traditionally, members tend to accept what they are told – the cladding meets requirements, all staff have been DBS checked, the pensions liability faces challenges which can be managed and met, etc.

        If a scrutiny committee meets, for perhaps one and a half hours every couple of months, we don’t have the luxury of spending half the meeting winkling out the factors impacting one area of interest at the expense of glossing over another.
        Picking up on the Grenfell question, had the scrutiny been more incisive, would a different outcome have resulted? How do we get to that more quickly and more effectively?
        In no way do I seek to discount the importance of the four governance questions posed but I would submit that those conversations need to be as well informed as the questions which precede them at scrutiny.
        Again, my thanks for your comment. I look forward to further discussion

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