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Getting assurance that services are performing as they should – seven scrutiny ideas

Assurance is one of the seven scrutiny superpowers.

By acting as a watchdog and by ensuring that services are delivered as they should be, scrutiny can give the public confidence that the local council operates with integrity and performs effectively. Ultimately scrutineers can see themselves as ‘safeguarding services’ – spotting the warning signs of poor performance before things go wrong and ensuring that remedies are being put in place.

Here are some ideas to boost the assurance power of scrutiny.

If you do them all already then well done. Please help yourself to an extra treat from the treat box.

1. Ensure that performance reports work for you

Often the performance reports that come to scrutiny committees follow a standard corporate format but there is no reason why reports can’t be tailored to the needs of scrutineers. Have a conversation with your performance people about what it is you are trying to do, what’s helpful and what’s not. Remember, if you can’t easily understand what the report is saying then chances are that others will be confused as well. You should be able to see the wood from the trees.

2. Get training if you need it

You don’t have to be an expert in any particular service but you should be good at performance scrutiny. It’s always worth the committee taking some time out with the performance team to understand the key concepts and processes. This is also a good opportunity to develop some core questions….

3. Develop some core questions

Whatever the service area there are some general questions that you should return to – partly to ensure a consist approach but also to ensure the best use of time. I would ask ‘is there anything we should be concerned about?’ and ‘is there anything the service is particularly pleased or proud about?’ but that’s just me. Even better is to ask your in house performance experts what they would ask if they were you.

4. Triangulate whenever you can

Typically the performance information that you receive will come through a corporate reporting process. Performance is complex so, whatever the intentions of these processes, they can never tell the whole story. It’s important, therefore, that you triangulate – in other words consider other sources of information (e.g. service user views, complaints, staff opinions, site visits, comparisons with other councils etc etc) to reassure yourself that the story that the performance report is telling stands up.

5. Engage with auditors, inspectors and regulators

Conversations with auditors, regulators and inspectors are helpful for a number of reasons. To gain understating of each others roles, to avoid duplication and to share praise and concerns for example. One idea is for scrutiny and audit chairs to attend each others meetings once a year to present their respective annual work plans. Another is to invite audit committee members to scrutiny training and work planning conferences. Another is to invite inspectors to discuss their service reports at committees. There is plenty of scope for working together.

6. Consider future trends

Assurance is not just about whether services are performing as they should be right now but also about what’s going to happen in the future. So, it’s worth setting time aside to look at how future trends might affect a service and what the responses might be. This framework for scrutiny from the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales might be a helpful starting point.

7. Give praise where it’s due

Identifying concerns is clearly important but so is highlighting good work. This is not just because it’s a nice thing to do (and it is), but because drawing attention to success will help to strengthen services and raise awareness of good practice. More that this it shows that scrutiny is supporting services not just ‘policing’. Importantly praise should be specific and well explained so that it’s clear that scrutiny really understands what has gone well and why.