The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Scrutineers (remixed 2nd edition)

This is a revised version of a previous list that you can find here.


What are the things that effective scrutineers do that help to make them effective? What are the habits and behaviours that help them to make a difference? 

Well, 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 Centre for Governance and Scrutiny’s  principles of effective scrutiny, below are my seven habits.

Of course this is just my list, you may agree or disagree with my suggestions, or know others that might be missing. Either way, I hope it’s a useful list for self reflection and a helpful tool for discussion.

1.  Bring something thought provoking

Rather than simply responding to reports, effective scrutineers are independent minded and proactive – not just passive. They bring something new to the governance party. They offer something that the executive and officers might not have thought about.

It might be a concern that they have heard from partners or the public, a new way of doing things that has worked in another council, a really good question that starts a discussion or it might be an alternative approach to the policy being offered.

Ultimately we know something has been thought provoking by the way that it lands. We know a contribution has been challenging by the response of the person that it has been shared with. They might say, ‘ah, that’s interesting’ or ‘we need to go away and consider that’. Eyebrows are raised as they take a moment to process – that’s the kind of reaction that scrutineers should be aiming for.

Ultimately it is the executive who decide, who have the power to shape policy and strategy so, it’s by getting the executive to think in a new way about something, that scrutiny can influence change.

2. Work towards 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?’

After all, while accountability is an important aspect of scrutiny, citizens and people using services are interested in improvements and how things are going to be fixed – not just hearing about the problems. 

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.

One helpful idea here is to ask ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions rather than ‘why’ questions.

‘How’ and ‘what’ questions are better for encouraging constructive and solution focussed conversations. For example, ‘how might that be improved?’, ‘what’s worked well before?’ and ‘how will people know when that’s working as it should?’

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. 

There are three things to mention.

The first is your own personal involvement and commitment. How much time have you got? How are you going to have the greatest impact? Which issues do you want to get involved in? Perhaps those issues are the ‘glasses’ through which you read your papers and prepare? Perhaps you are the specialist on the committee, leading questions on your area of expertise, for example.

The second thing to mention is the annual work planning process. This is often a chance to contribute suggestions and debate the suggestions that others make. I know many councillors find it useful to be involved in these processes both to influence what happens but also so they know why a particular topic has been chosen when they come to look at it.  

The other thing to mention is meetings. Because the value of scrutiny comes from looking at things in depth it also helps to have no more than two main items on the agenda. You want to give everyone time to contribute and people are far from their best if meetings run on a long time. No one wants to feel like they are just watching a conveyor belt of items go by.

4.  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. 

Working through the papers can be a challenge, particularly the big agenda packs. I know many councillors spend time with highlighter pens, picking out the things that they might want to raise and jotting down potential questions. Briefings with officers can also be useful as can having someone who knows their stuff and is happy to answer a few quick questions before the meeting.

And remember that preparation is a team sport. Effective scrutineers work with colleagues and support officers to get the best results. Whether that’s in pre meetings or through email and whattsapp groups – there is always a conversation to be had about what the focus might be and who is going to ask what.

5.  Invest in relationships

Scrutiny has some formal powers but it’s soft power that really helps to get things done. Effective scrutiny is built on good engagement with the executive, the organisation and with partners.

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 aspects of relationships to be effective. This is what I hear from many councillors when I ask them ‘what helps to make scrutiny effective?’

Good habits I hear about include having regular informal catch ups over a cup of tea, having the conversation about the conversation, in other words asking; ‘how are we going to work together? and ‘what would help you to work with scrutiny?’ as well as explaining what’s helpful for scrutiny and giving a heads up about what’s coming up and what topics are likely to be raised in meetings.

Another thing that helps to build relationships is the contributions to make in meetings – if they are respectful and considered, addressing the issue not the person – then helps to build future cooperation.

Of course these are professional relationships – you don’t have to be best friends (and do be careful if you are!) – but you do have to find ways of working together for the benefit of citizens and people using services.

6. Build conversations

Change comes through cooperation. Whether it’s with the executive, officers, partners or the public, scrutiny brings change through conversations. 

Effective scrutineers have ‘back and forth’ exchanges with executive members in meetings and this is where meaningful challenge can take place. As the Institute for Government reported, in ‘Being an Effective Select Committee Member’:

Interviewees told us that the most impressive members were those who actually listened to the answers that witnesses gave and then used follow-up questions to probe and drill down into those answers. 

Starting with open questions, effective scrutineers are able to listen carefully and focus on issues and concerns that matter – working with the executive member to identify areas and ideas for improvement.

7.  Keep in touch with what’s going on

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.

Examples might include:

  • Rota visits to residential care homes
  • Arranging informal visits to talk to staff
  • Attending residents associations and community group meetings
  • Having an email list of people that are willing to be contacted at short notice about an issue

Bonus:  Self scrutinise

Scrutiny is challenging and the world around scrutiny is changing all the time. 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. 

It’s important, therefore, for scrutineers to apply the same critical appraisal to their own work as they apply to the work of others – a case of physician heal thyself!

This might involve a ‘wash up’ at the end of a meeting to have a quick discussion about how things went, it could mean development sessions about to discuss how things are going for the committee or for scrutiny as a whole or perhaps seeking external input to provide some independent challenge.


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