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The four conversations of good public governance

Whether you are developing a strategy, designing a work programme or solving a problem, there are four conversations the you should be having; the public, regulatory, corporate and partnership conversations. 

Good conversations are the cornerstone of good governance.  But, as a councillor, school governor or board member, who should you be talking to?

In this post I briefly set out the four conversations you should be having with suggestions about who should be included, why each conversation matters and how to take them forward.

The four conversations of public governance is a handy rule of thumb that can be applied in many situations.

1.  The public conversation

As a public body you work for the public so you want to be sure you are meeting people’s needs and doing the things they expect.

Broadly speaking you can divide the public conversation into two – those who use your services and citizens of the wider community that you serve.  You are responsible to the former for providing the services they need and accountable to the latter (maybe indirectly) for contributing to the wider public good.

Time spent trying to understand the user perspective is always time well spent. It can provide reassurance that you are doing the right things and, more often than not, unexpected insights.

In practice the public conversation might be with people that have been co-opted onto your committee or board, invited to attend meetings or through additional mechanisms such as a citizens juries or user groups or surveys.

2.  The regulation conversation

Regulators are the bodies that set the rules for how you work and will be responsible for ensuring that you operate in the right way.  Often these bodies will be providing your funding and will have powers they can use if things aren’t working as they should.  It might be that your work is overseen by a central or local government department.  Or a national regulation or inspection body. Or any combination of these.

This conversation is important to provide assurance to those that regulate and for you to understand from them what they expect.  Regulators are also in a good position to sign post to good practice and to major developments that might affect you.

It’s always good to talk to your regulators and inspectors face to face if possible.  An alternative is simply to write to them.  The conversation can also take place through reports – scrutiny reports can highlight issues for regulators just as regulators can do the same for scrutiny.

3.  The corporate conversation

This is the conversation you have with your the executives who lead your organisation and the managers that run your organisation.  They are the agenda setters and the deliverers.

It may be that you are part of a decision making body or in a scrutiny role.  Either way the corporate conversation matters if you are going to understand the strategic direction of your organisation, its policies and how well it is performing.

The corporate conversation should be the easiest to access and face to face meetings should always be possible.  However, it’s always worth talking to others in the organisation, those working at the frontline for example, to expand the conversation and get a fuller picture.

4.  The partnership conversation

No public body can operate in isolation and so it is important to talk to the various bodies that you rely on to get things done.  These include the other public services that you work with, those in the voluntary sector and the private sector.  Don’t forget to talk to those nearby organisations in the same sector as you – whether its neighbouring local councils, nearby schools or other housing associations working in the same locality.

Partners are particularly valuable for the semi independent perspective that they can bring.  They may have practical experience of working with your organisation and can give valuable feedback.  More than this they might be working to support the same people and working towards the same ends.  Finding out how others work and how they see the world can be a great way to think creatively about what you do.

Face to face is always best of course.  But why not go and visit your partners – you learn so much more about people when you visit them on their home turf.


How to design a scrutiny work programme

This post sets out my take on how to design a scrutiny work programme so that it’s focussed on the right issues and has the support of everyone involved.  

Designing a work programme is one of the most important activities for anyone involved in scrutiny.

A good work programme ensures that scrutiny is focussing on the things that matter most and is making the best use of scarce time and resources.  More than this, when it’s done right, the process of designing a work programme can promote transparency and public participation and be a positive demonstration of good governance.

While every process will be different – and quite rightly so, because every organisation is different – there are some fundamentals that underpin every good process.

Finally, while this is written with local government scrutiny in mind, it should also be helpful for housing association tenants, school governors or anyone else in a scrutiny role.

First principles

When designing a work programme it’s helpful to bear in mind that:

  • Work planning is an ongoing process not a one off event.  Things change so you need to leave space to be flexible. And this means giving your work programme proper attention – not just ‘nodding it through.  There should be time set aside at every regular meeting to talk about the work programme to ensure it stays relevant.
  • Work planning is an activity for the whole team – not just the chair or the majority group – scrutiny activity will be more effective down the line if everyone has been involved in the development of the work programme
  • Like any aspect of governance, work planning should be an ongoing conversation with others – whether the public, the organisation, regulators or partners to name just a few
  • The design of the work programme will need to be changed as time goes on.  There is no perfect template that will work for everyone and it’s important to regularly test whether it works.  It’s always a work in progress so don’t be afraid to experiment with the way it’s set out or presented.  Regularly ask ‘is it useful?’ and ‘Does it do what we need it to do?’

Thinking about impact

As the aim of the work programme is to ensure that scrutiny makes the biggest impact possible – so it’s useful to talk about what this means.  I like to think about impact like this:

Addressing the biggest issues of concern that are not being tackled by anyone else.

If you have different version that’s fine – better even.   What matters is that impact, however you define it, provides a focus for your scrutiny activity.  Your definition will also be helpful when it comes to evaluating and reviewing the work that you have done.

Designing the work programme

The initial development of a work programme can be divided into three stages; mapping concerns, prioritising topics and matching activities to topics.

1.  Mapping concerns

This is the discovery phase of designing the work programme.

I like to use the ‘four conversations’ (public, corporate, regulatory and partnership) when thinking about the information that needs to be gathered and who to talk to.

Of course time and resources will dictate how much you can do but, the more time you spend discovering concerns, the better the work programme will be.  It’s always good to do the work in public if you can whenever but you may prefer to do this informally and report back – or ask those providing support to do it for you.

Here are some ideas for discovering concerns:

The public – citizens and service users

  • Invite people to talk to you or go and meet them where they are
  • Use social media
  • Commission surveys
  • Use the results of other surveys
  • Draw on anecdotal evidence from your own experience – as councillors, for example, you will have a good sense of what is going on on the ground

Corporate and performance

  • Invite cabinet members / senior officers to come and talk to you
  • Research annual reports and corporate strategies
  • Research performance reports
  • Survey staff
  • Consider your council’s forward plan – particularly the cabinet items

Regulators and government

  • Invite regulators or inspectors to speak to you
  • Research inspection and regulatory reports
  • See what select committees are looking at
  • Check out what issues government is consulting on
  • Ask MPs or members of devolved parliaments for their views


  • Invite them to a meeting
  • Survey them
  • Research partnership reports and minutes
  • Research the annual reports and strategies of partner organisations
  • Talk to scrutineers in nearby councils

Oh, and don’t forget to revisit your last work programme if you have one.  There may be issues that you were unable to tackle, or new issues that came out of the work that you did.  This should all go into the pot.

2.  Prioritising topics

Having collected lots of concerns the next step is to identify the most significant.

This can be done at a meeting or, even better, at a conference involving others.  Consider inviting those involved in audit roles for example, or other backbench councillors.

Again, you should prioritise in the way that you find most helpful.  If you are looking for ideas you could consider this three stage process:

a)  Providing everyone with a list of issues thrown up by the discovery stage showing where each has come from

b) Working in small groups or pairs to identify the issues that:

  • Have been raised in more than one place
  • Affect the widest group of people
  • Have the greatest effect on individuals

c)  Each group can be challenged to identify three issues that match one or more of these criteria and feed them back.

These can then be incorporated into the work programme or, if another stage is needed, consider the use of dot voting on wall charts, or another method, to allow each individual to express their preferences that can then be added up.

Even better put a short list back to the public and invite them to vote with the promise that the best supported issues will be acted upon.

3.  Matching activities to topics

Having prioritised a smaller number of issues the next challenge is to shape them into practical activities.  Each scrutiny context is different, however there will be alternative ways for scrutiny work to get done and for recommendations to be made.

Consider, for example, which issues of concern will be best addressed by:

  • In depth inquiry work
  • Peformance monitoring
  • One off task and finish
  • Mystery shopping
  • Calling in a report before a decision is made by the governing body, cabinet or board
  • Calling for a new report to be produced that can be discussed at a meeting

It makes sense for this to be done, in the first instance, by the chair working with support officers or at least a smaller group.

It is important at this stage to filter out the issues that are being looked at by others elsewhere.  This can be done by talking to officers.  These issues should not be lost, however. They should still be captured in the work programme and revisited.  You will want to know what the outcomes of these other processes has been – you may then want to pick them up again if you are unsatisfied.

Ongoing Review

Your work programme needs to be organic and tested regularly.

This goes not just for the contents – but for the way it looks, how it is presented on the printed page, how it is published online – in other words how usable it is.

It’s good to regularly ask the committee or task group ‘how helpful is this format for you?’ and ‘what could be better?’.

In terms of format it may be that a simple one page timetable is sufficient.  For a committee dealing with a number of strands of work, maybe employing task and finish groups, for example, a more complex format will be needed. The key thing is that the members of the committee can easily follow what’s happening and are able to suggest ideas.

If there is silence each time the work programme is discussed then it probable needs a rework.

And finally, where the work programme goes on your agenda is also part of the design.

If it’s important to you (and it should be!) then maybe it should be the first thing you discuss.  It doesn’t need to get in the way of the main items as long as you keep to a time limit.  But at least it’s being considered while everyone is fresh and not at the end, when everyone is itching to leave.


By the way, if this is something you think I might be able to help you with, drop me a line on my contact page.


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The seven scrutiny superpowers ✊

As many new councillors are getting to grips with their new roles and many more old hands are getting back up to speed, here’s a reminder of the superpowers that scrutiny councillors have to change the world.

Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the process, in the paperwork and the meetings, but don’t forget what scrutiny can do to help the good citizens of the area.

Of course scrutiny has some formal legal powers, but it’s the powers that come from the drive, creativity and commitment of the scrutiny councillors themselves that are far more interesting.

Far better than simply the legal powers – these are the superpowers, and there are seven of them.

The seven scrutiny superpowers

1.  The power of transparency

By asking questions and publishing the answers, by asking for reports and putting them in the public domain, scrutiny has the special ability to make local government more open and transparent.

2.  The power of accountability

By requiring cabinet members and other decision makers to give an account of themselves in public, by asking the questions that the public want the answers to and by publicly highlighting both concerns and praise, scrutiny is able to ensure that the public interest stays at the heart of decision making.

3.  The power of participation

By inviting the public and others outside the council to share their views and work with councillors, scrutiny can ensure that people’s voices are heard, that their involvement makes difference and that the issues that matter to citizens are acted on by decision makers.

4.  The power of solutions

By taking time to explore difficult and challenging issues in depth and talking to a wide range of people, scrutiny has the ability to find solutions to the most difficult policy problems and to suggest ways to improve the services that matter to people.

5.  The power of challenge

By acting as a critical friend, scrutiny can ensure that cabinet decisions are made as they should be – in the public interest.  Scrutiny can look at cabinet reports before decisions are taken and call-in decisions once they have been made.

6.  The power of assurance

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.

7.  The power of capacity

By working on the things that really matter to the council and the public, scrutiny can make sure that all of the resources of the council are used to maximum effect.  In particular scrutiny can harness the power of the majority of councillors who are not in the Cabinet.


That’s the superpowers of scrutiny right there.


PS. Of course it’s important to be wary of the seven scrutiny kryptonites as these can neutralise scrutiny super powers. Read about them here.


Updated 19.12.18

Triangulation: A helpful technique for better scrutiny

Triangulation is a key technique for anyone involved in a public scrutiny role.  If you are not familiar with the concept here is a short introduction that I hope you will find helpful.

As a councillor, school governor or member of any other type of public body, you will no doubt have found yourself looking at management and performance reports as part of your scrutiny role. What you are being asked to do is to provide assurance that things are as they should be and to provide ‘challenge’ to those making the decisions.  This is important – not just because you are acting the interests of citizens and service users – but because you want to see things continuously improving.

Sometimes, however, the report being presented by the senior officer, headteacher or chief executive, is the only source of information you have.  Given that they are the expert in their field, have helped produce the report and have all the background information at their fingertips, how then do you seek assurance and challenge? Of course you may trust them implicitly and you no doubt have good reason to do so.  But is this enough?

That’s where triangulation comes in.

Triangulation in the social sciences

In social science triangulation is a technique used to provide greater credibility and confidence for research results. In essence it borrows from the navigational idea that, given the mathematics of triangles, it’s possible to locate something when you view it from two or more points.

Often triangulation refers to the use of both quantitative and qualitative research methods in a single piece of research.  This highlights the need to look at more than just the numbers when we are trying to assess something – it’s always good to get a richer picture.

Types of triangulation

Norman Denzin identified four varieties of triangulation; theoretical, data, methodological and investigator.  It is the last three of these that are particularly useful for those involved in scrutiny roles:

Data triangulation: Time comparisons are always useful.  Have you been provided with the historical data for a particular measure?  Similarly have you got comparisons with similar councils, schools, public bodies?  You don’t always need to rely on your own organisation for this data.  You will often find that national data sets are published by government or others.  You should have already had these pointed out to you – if not you should ask.

Methodological triangulation:  Performance reporting is only one way to assess how well a service or project is doing.  Observations of the service in action (perhaps as a ‘mystery customer’), interviews and focus groups with those providing or receiving the service, looking at examples of the paperwork, anonymised case files or, in schools, book scrutiny, are some alternative ways of getting a feel for a service.  Finally, and critically, the conversations you have with citizens and service users are a really valuable source of information.  The stories you year on the street, at the school gate and on the doorstep may be anecdotal but they are a legitimate method of evidence gathering.  At the very least these types of story can start helpful conversations at committee or board meetings.

Investigator triangulation:  It’s always helpful to have more than one set of eyes on a problem.  As a scrutineer you already provide an valuable extra perspective – even if it’s simply asking the right questions.  Other external perspectives can also be useful.  Inspectors and auditors may have produced reports for your particular service or public body.  They may even be willing to come and talk to you.  Other people with a useful perspective include those from national government, professional bodies, community groups, organisations representing service users and academics.  Remember, good governance needs good conversations.

Using triangulation

Denzin uses the term multiple triangulation to describe a mix of all of the above – as a good scrutineer this is what you should be aiming for.  Of course you will need to be selective in what you look at and how you triangulate – better to do a few things well than try and do too much.

While you will know best what works best for you in your circumstances there is always room to experiment with something new.  If it works you can do more of it.  If not then try something else.

It’s also worth talking to your fellow scrutineers in other councils, schools and public bodies to find out what they do.  There is also no reason to stick to your own sector – the triangulation technique is one that works across all aspects of public governance.

And of course the aim here is not to catch people out or undermine them – as well as making a difference for those on the receiving end, good scrutiny should be welcomed by those who are being scrutinised as something that helps them do their job better.  Everybody wins.



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It takes two to dance the scrutiny tango

Tango is a great metaphor for good scrutiny.  Whether you are a councillor, a school governor or any other member of a public body, thinking about what tango involves (the dance not the drink of course) will help you take steps towards more effective scrutiny.

Here are the four reasons why:

1.  The good scrutineer takes the lead role

Like all partner dances, scrutiny has a leader and follower.

Good scrutiny happens when the scrutineer sets the terms of engagement; less so when they follow the lead of the cabinet member, head teacher or chief executive of whatever body they are part of.

This means forming a workplan that focusses on the issues that you want to look at and taking control of what gets discussed at your meetings.  The good scrutineer carefully frames each item, by carefully explaining what they want to achieve and then ensures the right questions are asked and the conversation is managed as they want.

At the same time those being scrutinised have to be willing to follow.  To attend when called, to provide the information that’s asked for, in the format required, and to be open and honest in the responses they give.  Most of all the ‘scrutinisee’ has to show respect for scrutiny in what they say and what they do.

2.  Effective scrutiny responds to the music

The tango is not a fully scripted dance.  Instead there is plenty of improvisation.  Partners respond to changes in tone and tempo as they feel they need to.

In the same way scrutiny has to remain flexible and be able to respond to topical events.

Both scrutineer and scrutinisee should feel confident to suggest changes to work programmes, add additional meetings and change agenda items around to reflect, in particular, issues of concern to the public or users of the service they are responsible to.

3.  Good scrutiny keeps to time

The good dancer always keeps to time.  Complex techniques are performed to the beat.

Similarly scrutiny has a music of its own.  It has fit just right in the policy process.  Policy development work has to take place before proposals are fully formed.  Pre-decision scrutiny of the final report has to be given time to consider and provide feed back.  Call-ins of decisions also need a reasonable window to operate in.

Responses to scrutiny must also be timely.  Standards should be set for the scrutinisee to provide answers to written questions and for the responses to reports. All this should be monitored by the scrutineer.

4.  Scrutiny at its best pleases the audience

Scrutiny should promote transparency and accountability.  It should focus on the issues that citizens and those using the service care about.

The public should be welcomed in to watch the dance and should be able to give their feedback.

They should even be able to join in.  But maybe that needs a different metaphor…


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How to move the conversation from problems to solutions

Here are three questions you can use to turn your conversations from a negative problem focus to a constructive solution focus.  These are particularly handy for the chairs of committee and board meetings to have up their sleeve but can be used in any context really.

One of the things I love about solution focussed approaches is the assumption that you don’t need to understand the problem to make progress.

In fact, ‘problem talk’ can actually make it harder to find solutions.  Placing attention on the things that are wrong distracts from what’s working well and what we want our positive future to look like.

Sometimes of course people need to talk about what’s wrong, to download and to get things off their chest.  Sometimes people have to talk about their problems before they can move on to talking about their solutions.  But other than ‘clearing the decks’, talking about problems is not necessarily helpful from a solution focussed perspective.

However, given that people will want to, and may need to, discuss problems, it’s useful to have a few simple techniques for moving people to ‘solution talk’ when the time is right.

Below are three questions that do just that.  I’ve picked them up from the world of solution focus but actually they are useful for any situation to move things from negative to positive.

1.  What would you like to see instead?

This is one of my favourite questions.  People are very good at describing what they don’t like or don’t want but this question encourages people to construct something positive and a direction to travel in.  So, if someone says ‘I wish we could have less arguing in the team’, asking ‘what would you like instead’, might get a suggestion like ‘people agreeing together what do do next’ or ‘a friendly atmosphere in the office’.  It’s much easier to work out how to make progress when you have positive goals to work towards.  Particularly if you can get people to describe in detail what ‘reaching a consensus’ or ‘a friendly atmosphere’ might look like in practice.

2.  Can you think of an instance when this didn’t happen?

For every problem or bad behaviour there is almost always a time when that problem wasn’t present or that behaviour was absent.  Ask people to think about exceptions and you can then move to discussing the circumstances that led to that positive instance.  That time the team worked really well on a particular project might get mentioned.  What was it about that project?  What helped the team to work well together that time?  Attention is then switched to how the positive circumstances can be captured and reproduced.

3.  What are they like at their best?

Often problem talk revolves around an individual or group who are seen as challenging or difficult.  By asking what the people in question are like at their best you are encouraging a conversation about their positive behaviours and qualities.  You can them follow up with questions about what might have led them to be at their best and how they might be supported to be so in future.  Maybe John made a really big contribution to the team when they took on a particular project.  What qualities does he bring to the team when he is at his best? What helps him to be at his best?


Of course these questions might not work every time and you might need to persevere – particularly where problems talk is the default.  However I’ve certainly found these three simple questions useful for nudging conversations from something negative to something more positive and productive.


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Good public governance needs good conversations

As a councillor, school governor or member of a public body, you want to feel confident that you are doing the right things in the right way.  While professional advice and good practice guides are important to have, it’s your conversations that will help you most.  But what is a conversation, why do they matter and what makes them so powerful?  

What’s a conversation?

By conversation I mean something more than a friendly chat.

It’s a term to describe the interactions you have with people outside of your council or governing body.  It might involve meeting in person, phone calls, video calls, exchanges of emails or communication through social media.  A conversation might be a combination of all of these things.

Your most important conversations will be with central or local government, your regulators, your managers, your partners and crucially, the public.

A conversation is always a two way process.  It’s good to explain what you are doing and share things of course.  It’s even better to give account of your work.  But the real value of a conversation is what you bring back in, what you learn and what you change as a result.  Sometimes conversations can even create something new, something neither side expected, some new idea or inspiration.  That’s why effective listening is so important.

Conversations can be formal or informal.  The word conversation suggests something more informal, but of course that might not always work.

It’s good to have councillors, governors, members present when any part of a conversation is taking place – and all of them if you can.  Of course this isn’t always possible but everyone should be kept in the loop even if they can’t be there in person.  And a conversation should be captured in some way so it can be shared as openly as possible.

And your conversations don’t all have to take place in the town hall, board room or school hall.  Particularly when talking to the public it can be better to get out of your usual, comfortable meeting place.  You are likely to have a better conversation if you do.

Why have conversations?

Some of the reasons to have conversations include:

  1. Confidence:  Talking to the right people can reassure you that you are doing the right things in the right way.  You can also check that you haven’t missed anything important or some major change heading your way.
  2. Inspiration:  Some conversations can remind you why you do what you do.  Positive stories give you the energy to carry on and the emotional support you sometimes need for your work.
  3. Noticing: What you are already doing well – sometimes it takes an outside perspective to help you to do this.
  4. Tailoring: Making sure you can adapt good practice to fit your own unique circumstances.
  5. Solutions:  Sharing challenges with others outside of your normal meetings can help to suggest new things you might want to try.  Sometimes it’s the conversation itself that generates the new thinking.
  6. Influence:  Sharing your hopes and ideas with others can also lead to changes outside of your public body.  Conversations have the potential to bring about change on both sides.
  7. Values:  Understanding what’s important to others, sharing what matters to you.
  8. Describing: What good looks like – co-creating the future you want to see for your governing body with people who have a stake in that future.
  9. Relationships:  Can be sources of mutual help and support.  Conversations help to build these ties and can lead to new relationships.
  10. Creative tension: Sometimes different conversations might tell you different things, but  these tensions can be a source of creativity and innovation, of challenge and development.

By paying attention to why you are having a conversation and what you want to get out of it, you can more easily decide what questions you want ask.  You can give structure and purpose to your annual meeting with your regulator, your quarterly update from your operations manager or your visit to the community association.

The power of conversations

Conversations are much more than simply an exchange of information.

As many psychologists and social scientists will tell you, our social reality and our knowledge about the world is constructed by our interactions with others.  This means that the way councillors, school governors and members of public bodies go about their business is also constructed by their interactions.

In other words, how you think and act as a member of a public body has a lot to do with the conversations that you have.

It should also be liberating to know that you can create your own version of good governance through your conversations – a version that fits your needs and circumstances.  A version that is easier to understand and achieve because you made it.

Getting your governance arrangements off the shelf maybe easier in the short term but will be less satisfying later on.

So, whether you are thinking about one aspect of your governance arrangements, or reviewing all of them, it really is worth making sure that your conversations are the right ones and that they are good ones.



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