Six leaderships roles for scrutiny chairs

In this post I set out six leadership roles for scrutiny chairs: facilitator, host, committee representative, team leader, strategist and scrutiny champion. I hope they will be useful for anyone thinking about and developing as a scrutiny chair.


Scrutiny chair is an important and challenging role.

Every chair of a scrutiny committee is different, every committee is different, every council is different and every place is different. So, there is no single right way to chair and lead scrutiny.

Everyone has their own approach for leading end chairing scrutiny. And of course the role is much more than the traditional idea of chairing a meeting (although that is, of course, an essential element).

I’ve developed six roles that I hope will be helpful for chairs to think about when reflecting on what they do.

First though, think about your personal style as it will apply to how you operate each of the roles.

Chieftains and catalysts

A helpful way to think about chairing style is chieftains and catalysts.

Mark Geddes, in his research on Westminster select committees, found that chairs all operated somewhere on a scale with chieftain at one end and catalyst at the other.

Chieftains ‘lead from the front’ and have strong views about what the committee should be doing and will lead work planning and questioning with their own ideas. Catalysts, on the other hand, see their role as helping the committee to reach a view on what the committee’s priorities should be and are more more likely to take a step back during questioning sessions. 

Neither style is necessarily better but perhaps it’s helpful to reflect on your style and how that might translate into what you do on a day to day basis.

Each of the six roles can be played as a chieftain or a catalyst or somewhere in between.

So, onto the six roles.


The committee’s strategy is what it chooses to look at and how it plans to make a difference.

It means identifying those ‘big ticket’ items that the committee will focus on over the year.

It also means having the right balance between oversight and improvement in the committee’s work plan.

Oversight is about ensuring that the organisation is performing as it should. It means holding accountability conversations with executive members and monitoring and assessing performance reports. Scrutiny in oversight mode works in the public interest, is independent minded and operates at arms length. Crucially, oversight means asking ‘is there anything significant we have missed?’ We’ve learnt from the reports from different governance failures over the years that scrutiny’s role will be carefully examined if things do go wrong.

Improvement is about working with the executive to make a difference for citizens and service users. It often involves testing decisions – either at the pre-decision or call-in stage – and doing in-depth policy development work. In improvement mode, scrutiny works to the council and cabinet agenda, hosts constructive conversations and seeks to build co-operation with the executive. After all, it’s the executive that has the final say.

Managing the committee’s strategy means meeting with executive members, senior officers and with the audit committee to ensure scrutiny has the data it needs to check that nothing has been missed and to discuss potential areas that scrutiny might look at and .


The facilitation role is about ensuring that the scrutiny process leads to a productive conclusion. This means working with the committee to prepare a plan for approaching different items, introducing items, intervening where needed and drawing conclusions together.

Many chairs find it helpful to have a pre meeting to get everyone organised and to talk about how the committee might approach each item.

During the meeting the chair can set out what the purpose of each item is and then manage the questions. At the end of each item a good facilitator will summarise what has been agreed and set out any recommendations for the committee to agree.

Finally, facilitation is about intervening when things aren’t running smoothly – gently encouraging long contributions to reach a conclusion, bringing in those who have not been able to contribute and addressing any unhelpful or rude behaviour.


Think about yourself as the compere for the meeting. Making sure everyone is comfortable, feeling positive and know’s what’s going on. 

For the people watching, whether in the room, online or catching later via video, a commentary can be really helpful. By introducing the committee, the meeting, each item, to an audience that you assume isn’t familiar with what’s going on, you can help to make the proceedings more open and transparent. In fact it also helps you and the committee to remember why you are there and what you are trying to do. 

Getting everyone in the right frame of mind before the meeting starts is also a helpful aspect of hosting. Saying hello to committee members beforehand, taking time before the meeting to talk to any invited speakers, particularly members of the public, about what’s coming up so they know what to expect and if they have any concerns. 

Finally the host can help create a positive atmosphere by showing appreciation for those contributing to the success of the meeting whether members, advisors, outside speakers and support staff.

Committee representative

As a representative of the committee, the chair presents the work of the committee and speaks on its behalf.

This might involve presenting the recommendations to the executive or to full council meetings

It might involve speaking to the media about the work that the committee is doing.

The annual report is another way that the chair represents the committee – by providing a foreword and a summary of the committee’s work for the year.

Of course, speaking on behalf of the committee means being confident that it is the view of the whole committee that you are representing and checking in with them first if you need to.

Team leader

The team leader role is about helping the committee to work as effectively as possible.

This means encouraging and supporting cross party working and scrutiny work always has more impact when it is cross party.

It also means making the best use of everyone’s availability, skills and interests  – leaning more on those who have time available and asking those with particular interests to specialise, for example.

The team leader role is also about making sure the committee has the resources it needs. Whether making the case for the staff that are needed or helping to bring in additional support from inside or outside the organisation.

Scrutiny champion

Scrutiny can often feel like a Cinderella compared with other parts of the council’s decision making processes. For this reason it’s important that chairs speak up and tell a good story about scrutiny and it’s role within council governance.

This might mean speaking up for scrutiny when the constitution or the budget are being debated in council meetings, contributing to governance reviews to ensure scrutiny is properly reflected and speaking to officers, partners and public to share what scrutiny is and what it does.


Public domain image here.

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