Accountability is one the seven scrutiny superpowers.
By requiring cabinet members and other decision makers to give an account of themselves in public and by asking the questions that citizens want answers to, scrutiny is able to ensure that the public interest stays at the heart of decision making.
If you are wondering how to boost accountability through your scrutiny work, here are some ideas that might be helpful. Gold star if you do them all already.
Having the scrutiny committees chaired by independent minded councillors will help ensure that accountability is robust. This could mean councillors from outside the ruling party or it could mean chairs elected by secret ballot as happens for parliamentary select committees.
Select committee seating
Talking about select committees, having cabinet members sat at a separate table, looking into a horseshoe, will help ensure the interpersonal dynamics are right and help observers to see that serious accountability is taking place.
Effective holding to account means asking the right questions. To ask the right questions the committee needs to have a settled method for preparing them.
When cabinet members make commitments – either in response to scrutiny recommendations or directly to the committee, it’s helpful to log and monitor these commitments. Cabinet members should expect to be held to account for the things they say they will do.
Or you can call them scrutiny letters. The accountability relationship between scrutiny and cabinet members is a conversation so letters work really well to capture it as a written public record and a trail that’s easy to follow. Scrutiny writes to the cabinet member and the cabinet member replies – simple. And better than minutes.
Cabinet member Q&As
Set time aside for cabinet members to answer any questions relevant to their portfolios. Even better, invite other councillors and the public to submit ideas for questions.
A good basis for a cabinet member Q&A is a portfolio report. It doesn’t need to be long, but asks the cabinet member to provide a written update on the key issues for them at that time – what the biggest challenges are, what’s going well, what’s not going so well.
By the way, these last three have been working well in Swansea (where I worked).