The 7 habits of highly effective scrutineers

As I write this, many new councillors are finding out about scrutiny for the first time. More experienced councillors are also thinking about the year ahead and reflecting on how they work. I thought it would be a good time, therefore, to write something about being an effective scrutineer.

So, taking inspiration from Stephen R Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and drawing from the many sessions I’ve run with scrutiny councillors, the many meetings I’ve observed and the principles of effective scrutiny, here is my list of 7 habits.

Hopefully the more experienced councillors will recognise them and the new councillors will find them useful. Are there any I’ve missed?

The 7 habits of highly effective scrutineers

In order to promote good governance and make a difference for citizens and service users, effective scrutineers…

1.  Think independently

It’s the constructive dynamic between scrutiny and the executive that is at the heart of how scrutiny contributes to good governance. Effective scrutineers, therefore, make their own judgements after listening to advice and hearing evidence. They take responsibility for selecting topics and they take ownership of the scrutiny process. One good way to support independent thought is to seek independent expert input [1].

2.  Prepare

When I ask scrutiny chairs what advice they might give to new councillors, the most common answer is ‘prepare!’  Whether it’s reading the papers, seeking advice from officers or attending briefings, effective scrutineers come to meetings ready to be productive. And remember that preparation is a team sport. Effective scrutineers work with colleagues and support officers to get the best results. 

3.  Prioritise

Scrutiny councillors have limited time and resources to work on what can be a very, very long to-do list. For this reason, to be effective, councillors need to invest time in prioritising. Widespread consultation, work planning workshops and a clear process can all help. It also helps to stick to no more than two main items in a meeting to ensure that proper attention can be given.

4.  Drive improvement

Even if our instincts are to focus on what’s gone wrong in the past, effective scrutiny is about looking forward and asking ‘how might we do this better?’ and ‘what do we want to happen instead?’ Some of the most effective scrutiny work involves seeking out solutions to significant and pressing issues and this is also the work that I know many councillors find the most rewarding.

5.  Keep in touch with your public

Effective scrutiny amplifies the concerns of the public. To do this, councillors must have methods for regularly keeping in touch with residents and service users. Whether through visits, consultations or through simply being visible and available in the community, councillors with the keeping in touch habit are better able to channel the voice of the public into their work.

6.  Invest in relationships

Scrutiny has some powers but it’s soft power that really helps to get things done. Whether it’s working with cabinet members, senior officers or partners, it’s the informal meeting, email or quick call that can help the formal relationships to be effective. This is what I hear from many councillors when I ask them ‘what helps to make scrutiny effective?’

7.  Experiment   

Perhaps more than any other aspect of council governance, scrutiny has a wide choice of different methods that it can use and the opportunity to be creative in how it works. From my work I know that every council has it’s own way of doing things. I also know that scrutineers also get inspiration from hearing how others work and find it helpful to try out new things as a result.


[1] Robert Sheppard mention this on LinkedIn and I thought it was a good point to add.

[18.6.21 Changed 5 from ‘Keep in touch’ to ‘Keep in touch with your public’ to make clearer the difference to 6.]

[10.6.21 Changes from the original version: 4. is now ‘Drive improvement’ rather than ‘Look forwards’ and 7. is now ‘Experiment’ rather than ‘Innovate’] 

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