Local government scrutiny essentials: Seven things you always wanted to know (*but were afraid to ask)

This list of seven ‘scrutiny essentials’ is for anyone new (or newish) to scrutiny. Whether councillors on their first scrutiny committee, senior managers who haven’t had much to do with it before or perhaps anyone thinking about a scrutiny support role. 

So, I thought it would be helpful to set out some ‘need to knows’ (from my perspective anyway), by way of an introduction to the noble world of local government scrutiny. I sat down and worked out my top seven and you can find them below. I hope they are useful.

1. Good governance requires good scrutiny

The moments we learn most about good governance are when things go wrong because that’s when someone is asked to undertake a review and write a report.

Notable examples include from Rotherham, Mid Staffs, Northamptonshire and Kensington and Chelsea.

Scrutiny is mentioned in all of these reports and it’s a failure to provide effective challenge, or respond to it, that gets highlighted. Either decision makers are unwilling to listen to constructive criticism or unwilling to consider alternatives, or unwilling to share information that could reasonably be shared or out of touch with what’s happening in their community.

Improved scrutiny is intrinsically bound up with good governance in all of these reports.

2. It takes two to dance the scrutiny tango

The second essential thing to know is that scrutiny is a dance for two; the executive on the one hand, the scrutiny councillors on the other.

While cabinet members make decisions, develop policy and strategy and give advice to council, scrutiny provides constructive support and challenge.

Crucially these two roles are distinct – working together in the best interests of citizens, but with clear distance between them.

When the relationship is working well we see what we might call constructive tension. And it’s that constructive tension that supports good governance. 

If the relationship is either too cosy or too dysfunctional that’s another way that things can go wrong. Both the executive and scrutiny need to be willing to engage in the relationship constructively or it won’t work.

In fact, the executive / scrutiny (or independent) split is a cornerstone of governance in the UK at all levels. The same principles apply from parliamentary scrutiny of government down to school governors holding head teachers to account and all the boards, councils and committees in between.

3. Good scrutiny combines support and challenge

When scrutiny is working well it offers the right mix of support and challenge to cabinet members.

Support tends to mean looking forward – helping to shape decisions, helping to develop policy and strategy. It also means helping to find solutions.

Challenge is about checking things are working as they should, holding to account, testing performance, seeking assurance, offering alternatives.

So, scrutiny needs to be a mix of support and challenge and, like yin and yang, they go together, fit around each other and contain a small part of each other. For example, scrutiny might identify an area for concern [challenge] and then lead a conversation about addressing that concern [support]. 

4. Scrutiny has two types of power

While scrutiny does not have the same powers as the executive, its role is underpinned by the law and it has certain powers as a result. 

Scrutiny has its origins in the local government act 2000 when it was created as a check and a balance to the newly created cabinets, mirroring to some degree, at least, the relationship between government and select committees at the national level.

This briefing by Mark Sandford provides a useful summary of scrutiny’s formal powers. Key points include:

  • A committee member has the right to refer a relevant matter to the committee. 
  • Overview and scrutiny committees may hold inquiries and produce reports; 
  • Committees may require executive members and officers of the authority to appear before them. Individuals from outside the council can be invited, but not compelled to attend; 
  • Overview and scrutiny reports must receive a response from the council executive within two months; 

There are some other bits and pieces, external powers linked to health scrutiny, crime and disorder and flood risk, for example, that have also grown up since.

There are also some expectations around access to information that flow from various regulations. In summary, scrutiny has access to anything as long as it is relevant to its work plan and as long as there isn’t a good reason why not.

While these formal powers are rarely called upon, they do create the context in which scrutiny operates and underpin its legitimacy as a statutory function.

Scrutiny’s impact, however, tends to come through its use of soft power.

Bearing in mind that decision making power lies with the executive, it’s often these softer strategies that will count. So, having a professional and constructive relationship with cabinet is one aspect of this, demonstrating a robust and evidence based approach is another. 

Scrutiny’s influence is linked to its credibility which in turn flows from its impact. 

5. Scrutiny is a good governance Swiss Army knife

One of the distinctive (and great) things about scrutiny is how multi faceted it is.

Like a Swiss Army knife it has a range of different tools you can use. It doesn’t have to be just about councillors sitting in committee meetings listening to presentations and picking through reports.

if you look around different councils you will see scrutiny councillors working in many different ways and doing many different things.  For example:

  • Policy development ‘task and finish’ groups that gather evidence and report their recommendations
  • One off public hearings that capture local views around issues of concern
  • Performance monitoring panels that receive and challenge reports about service delivery
  • Question and answer sessions to hold cabinet members and other decision makers to account

For every task there are different ways of doing things, formal and informal, and of course, as well making scrutiny more effective, variety helps to make life more rewarding for the councillors involved. 

6. Scrutiny is a team sport

The phrase ‘scrutiny is a team sport’ is one you might hear quite often. 

As a committee, councillors are more effective when they work together, when they prepare together and when they make the best use of the time they have in meetings.

And yes, party politics can be a challenge, but the best scrutiny committees still manage to find common ground whilst recognising their differences.

The scrutiny team is wider than the councillors of course. Scrutiny support officers, democratic services officers, legal officers and many others can be drawn in to support scrutiny.

Senior officers can also be part of the team; offering advice, suggesting topics, reality checking reports and generally ensuring that scrutiny has the respect and status it needs. 

7. Scrutiny is an ongoing challenge

Finally, scrutiny is never perfect – it’s a challenge and scrutineers never stop learning and developing.

If you look at different councils you will see that no two councils operate scrutiny in the same way.

So, there is no one right way to do things – only what works in each council. But it’s not always obvious what the best approach is, so scrutiny needs to keep experimenting and paying attention to what’s working well.

This is one reason why scrutiny councillors and support officers find it helpful to find out what other councils are doing and share ideas.

There are also many helpful resources out there such as the recent statutory guidance for England from the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government, the Six Steps to Better Scrutiny In Wales from the Wales Audit Office and (of course!) the Good Scrutiny Guide from the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny.

Oh and this blog of course…



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