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Six conditions for effective local government scrutiny

Effective scrutiny needs the right structure and the right processes but, perhaps most important of all, it needs the right conditions (sometimes called culture). I’ve looked into the research and summarised six conditions that you can find below. Perhaps you could use them as check list to help you think about where your council does well and where your council might need to improve?

Mapping the research

The scrutiny literature, while not extensive, provides prescriptions of what the conditions for good scrutiny might be. Following the process used by Greer et al. (2016) who organised elements of good governance into five components, conditions identified in the literature have been mapped and then organised into six conditions. 

The six conditions, which are presented in table 1, are also organised against three of the institutional rule sets proposed by Lowndes (Lowndes 2005), namely political, constitutional and managerial.  Each of the six conditions is described below.

Table 1: Six conditions for effective local government scrutiny

Political Constitutional Managerial
1. Cross-partisanship within committees

2. Positive councillor engagement with scrutiny

3. Constructive executive-scrutiny relationship

4. Meaningful contribution to governance arrangements

5. Appropriate direct officer support

6. Supportive senior officers

Six conditions for effective local government scrutiny


1. Cross partisanship within committees 

While scrutiny can never be ‘a-political’ (councillors are politicians by definition after all) it must nevertheless ‘operate as independently as possible within the local party-political system (Ashworth 2003) and ‘work across the party divide’ (Wilson and Game 2011) if it is to be effective. Scrutiny priorities should reflect common ground between different political positions and reports should reflect consensus as far as possible. As well as being something that the public wishes to see, cross partisanship is more likely to get results as recommendations are translated through council decision making processes. Effective scrutiny, then, depends on ‘the loosening of party group discipline’ (Leach and Copus 2004).

2. Positive councillor engagement with scrutiny

While some councillors have been cynical about the scrutiny role, its success depends on positive councillor engagement and leadership (Snape, Leach et al. 2002). Beyond actively participating, councillors should take ‘a clear lead in deciding the overview and scrutiny programme (Johnson and Hatter 2004), have an ‘independent mindset (MHCLG 2019, Sandford 2019) and ‘be positive about scrutiny (Wilson and Game 2011)’. 

3. Constructive executive-scrutiny relationship

Fundamentally, scrutiny is intended to provide a check and a balance to the executive and, in this context, the relationship between the two is critical. To be effective, therefore, scrutiny must ‘develop a constructive relationship with the executive (Ashworth 2003) who in turn must be responsive to scrutiny (Snape, Leach et al. 2002, Leach and Copus 2004). A constructive relationship will feature early and regular engagement as well as a mechanism for managing disagreement (MHCLG 2019, Sandford 2019). Furthermore, the executive and scrutiny ‘must communicate effectively and openly – with each other and with the public’ (Johnson and Hatter 2004).

4. Meaningful contribution to governance arrangements

If it is to be effective, scrutiny should have a clear role and focus with the organisation ‘recognising scrutiny’s legal and democratic legitimacy’ and communicating this to the public (MHCLG 2019, Sandford 2019). It should not be sidelined but instead it must be given a high status within the local authority (Johnson and Hatter 2004). Scrutiny should ‘possess a wide range of powers (which they are prepared to operationalise)’ (Ashworth 2003). In addition, scrutiny must be pro-active, and not only be about scrutinising decisions’ (Johnson and Hatter 2004)

5. Appropriate direct officer Support

If scrutiny is to be more than ‘committee work’, it should be provided with the necessary support (MHCLG 2019, Sandford 2019) specifically ‘dedicated officer and resource support’ (Wilson and Game 2011). This allows for the ‘management of scrutiny processes’ (Snape, Leach et al. 2002) and for scrutiny to have ‘genuine analytical capacity’ (Leach and Copus 2004). 

 6. Supportive senior officer culture

While parliamentary scrutiny has formally separate officer support, local government scrutiny depends on the support of the same senior officers that support the executive. While these officers are expected to provide the same advice to scrutiny as they would to the executive, this is not always perceived to be the case. To be effective, however, scrutiny depends upon a ‘supportive senior officer culture’ where officers have ‘high level of awareness and understanding of scrutiny (Snape, Leach et al. 2002). In addition, senior officers should be ‘communicating scrutiny’s role and purpose to the wider authority’ (MHCLG 2019, Sandford 2019).



Ashworth, R. (2003). “Toothless Tigers? Councillor Perceptions of New Scrutiny Arrangements in Welsh Local Government.” Local Government Studies 29(2): 1-18.

Greer, S. L., et al. (2016). “Governance: a framework.” Strengthening Health System Governance: 27-56.

Johnson, K. and W. Hatter (2004). “Realising the Potential of Scrutiny.” New Local Government Network.

Leach, S. and C. Copus (2004). “Scrutiny and the Political Party Group in UK Local Government: New Models of Behaviour.” Public administration 82(2): 331-354.

Lowndes, V. (2005). “Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed ….” Policy Studies 26(3-4): 291-309.

MHCLG (2019). Statutory Guidance on Overview and Scrutiny in Local and Combined Authorities, Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government.

Sandford, M. (2019). “Overview and Scrutiny in Local Government.” House of Commons Library, Standard Note SN/PC/06520, updated 22.

Snape, S., et al. (2002). The development of overview and scrutiny in local government, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister London.

Wilson, D. and C. Game (2011). Local government in the United Kingdom, Macmillan International Higher Education.


Photo credit Rick Harrison

The 7 habits of highly effective scrutineers

As I write this, many new councillors are finding out about scrutiny for the first time. More experienced councillors are also thinking about the year ahead and reflecting on how they work. I thought it would be a good time, therefore, to write something about being an effective scrutineer.

So, 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 principles of effective scrutiny, here is my list of 7 habits.

Hopefully the more experienced councillors will recognise them and the new councillors will find them useful. Are there any I’ve missed?

The 7 habits of highly effective scrutineers

In order to promote good governance and make a difference for citizens and service users, effective scrutineers…

1.  Think independently

It’s the constructive dynamic between scrutiny and the executive that is at the heart of how scrutiny contributes to good governance. Effective scrutineers, therefore, make their own judgements after listening to advice and hearing evidence. They take responsibility for selecting topics and they take ownership of the scrutiny process. One good way to support independent thought is to seek independent expert input [1].

2.  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. And remember that preparation is a team sport. Effective scrutineers work with colleagues and support officers to get the best results. 

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. Widespread consultation, work planning workshops and a clear process can all help. It also helps to stick to no more than two main items in a meeting to ensure that proper attention can be given.

4.  Drive 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?’ 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.

5.  Keep in touch with your public

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.

6.  Invest in relationships

Scrutiny has some powers but it’s soft power that really helps to get things done. 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 relationships to be effective. This is what I hear from many councillors when I ask them ‘what helps to make scrutiny effective?’

7.  Experiment   

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. From my work I know that every council has it’s own way of doing things. I also know that scrutineers also get inspiration from hearing how others work and find it helpful to try out new things as a result.


[1] Robert Sheppard mention this on LinkedIn and I thought it was a good point to add.

[18.6.21 Changed 5 from ‘Keep in touch’ to ‘Keep in touch with your public’ to make clearer the difference to 6.]

[10.6.21 Changes from the original version: 4. is now ‘Drive improvement’ rather than ‘Look forwards’ and 7. is now ‘Experiment’ rather than ‘Innovate’] 

The Scrutiny Planning Canvas

The scrutiny planning canvas is something that I invite people to work on in groups during courses.  I think it  could also be useful for scrutineers more generally as part of their practice. I’ve had good feedback from those who have used it, so I thought I would share in case you might find it useful.

The idea is that you start with a concern that you want scrutiny to explore and work thought the various questions in order to think through the different aspects of what the work might look like.

A good way to use it is to print it out in A3 (even better laminated!) and, working in a small team, use post it notes to jot down possible answers. The reason for using post its is that the answer to one question can sometimes change the answer to another. Plus it’s easier to use it again.

The canvas is adapted from the Policy Lab Policy Canvas – an excellent resource for helping you to think about a policy issue. You can find it here.

Anyhow – here is the canvas. I hope you find it useful.

scrutiny canvass



Identifying scrutiny topics – 14 helpful questions

Like many other aspects of scrutiny, there is no one size fits all when it comes to identifying topics. Every council will have a different approach and there may even be differences between committees at the same council. Not that this is a bad thing of course. For me what matters is that any process is well thought through and that scrutineers work to improve the way they do this year on year.

Inspired by the very helpful Policy Canvas (from the Policy Lab Open Policy Making Toolkit) here are some questions that you might find useful when thinking about identifying topics.

When selecting topics you might also want to bear in mind the characteristics of a good scrutiny work plan.

Of course mapping and selecting topics is the first stage of a two stage process – the second stage is designing a plan that matches the chosen topics to the right activities in a way that will make the biggest difference. I plan to share something on that soon.

Helpful questions to ask when identifying scrutiny topics

  1. What difference do we hope to make? By selecting the right topics how will scrutiny add value? Who will benefit?
  2. What makes a good scrutiny topic? What are our 3 most important characteristics of a good topic?
  3. What’s the scope? What’s in? What’s out? What can we look at? What can’t we look at?
  4. What resources do we have to help us identify topics? Within the committee? Corporately? Externally? Creative ideas?
  5. How will we decide? How will we filter and prioritise? What tools will we use? Who will make the final decision? Will the public be involved in this process?
  6. Who do we need to advise us? Officer advice? External advice?
  7. Who else should we be asking? How should we be asking them?
  8. What do we know about what the public is concerned about? As councillors? As a council? In partnership?
  9. How do we know what the public is concerned about? What are we doing now? What more could we do?
  10. What are auditors, inspectors and regulators concerned about? What do recent reports say? What have they told us in person?
  11. What are the Council’s main corporate concerns? What are the corporate priorities, issues and risks? What are the budget issues and risks? What are the partnership issues? 
  12. What topics from last year are still relevant? Topics unconsidered? Topics that haven’t been resolved?
  13. How will people know what topics have been selected? How will we communicate to the public? Other councillors? The organisation? Partners?
  14. How will selected topics be reviewed? To make sure they are still the right ones.


By the way – if work planning is something you think I might be able to help you with please drop me a line via my contact page

Photo credit

What does a good scrutiny work plan look like?

What makes for a wonderful scrutiny work plan?

It’s that time of year when scrutiny committees are forming their work plans. While everyone has their own way of doing this I thought it would be helpful to share what I think are the seven characteristics of the most effective ones.

Seven characteristics of a good scrutiny work plan 

  1. Purpose – scrutiny is about making a difference so purpose should run through the work plan like the lettering through a stick of rock.
  2. Simplicity – a work plan is a tool after all and as such it should be easy to use and easy for anyone to see at a glance what’s happening.
  3. Balance – scrutiny is like a Swiss Army Knife and so the work plan should reflect the different ways that scrutiny can make a difference. 
  4. Conversations – the wider the input the better the plan so the public, the cabinet, audit, inspectors, partners and officers should all see their views reflected.
  5. Deliberation – it’s important that scrutiny councillors own and understand their work so the plan should reflect quality debate and discussion. 
  6. Independence – scrutiny should be councillor led and this should be reflected in the work plan – a good plan will look different to the council’s forward plan for example.
  7. Adaptability – plans can fall through and so often they do – so a good plan has room for flexibility and is regularly revisited and updated.

This is my list and I hope it’s helpful – all suggestions welcome of course!


By the way – if work planning is something you think I might be able to help you with please drop me a line via my contact page

Seven ideas for improving scrutiny’s ability to challenge constructively

The power of challenge is one of the seven scrutiny super powers. Scrutiny acts as  an important and constructive check on the decision making process, helping to ensure that final decisions are better.

Here are some ideas to improve the scrutiny power of challenge that others have found helpful.

Already do them all? Have an extra biscuit with your tea – you deserve it.

1. Engage with the forward plan

When it comes to effective challenge, the forward plan is your best friend. Considering the forward plan at every meeting will help you to see what’s coming up and what you might want to look at. Having a knowledgeable officer at these discussions is also helpful as sometimes forward plans are just not detailed enough. Even better, get involved in the design of the forward plan to ensure it’s fit for scrutiny’s purpose.

2. Engage with your cabinet members

As with any aspect of scrutiny, it takes two to dance the scrutiny tango. Regular meetings between the scrutiny chairs and cabinet member are a good way to ensure the the process works for everyone. Talk to the cabinet members about what’s coming up and give them the heads up on the issues scrutiny might be interested in.

3. Create enough time for pre decision scrutiny

Forward planning can provide time for pre-decision scrutiny meetings to convene well in advance of cabinet meetings. This provides time for responses to be properly formulated, discussed with cabinet members and included as separate written reports on cabinet agendas.

4. Present your feedback in person

Whether it’s cabinet or council meetings, it can be helpful to represent the work that scrutiny has done via pre-decison or call in, in person. Not only does this ensure that the right story is being told, but it makes scrutiny’s contribution much more visible than if it is just the cabinet member summing up what they have heard.

5. Consider your call-in decision in closed session

While it’s possible to vote on call-in decisions at the end of the meeting it might be helpful to consider what to do in closed session. Specifically it should give for constructive deliberation and the opportunity to find areas of cross party consensus. This is one of the useful tips in this briefing on call ins from the centre for public scrutiny.

6. Suggest workable alternatives

As with any scrutiny scrutiny work, the aim is make a positive difference. So, be constructive in your feedback and suggest alternatives rather than just present criticisms. Even better, work with the public and others to help ensure your suggestions are well grounded.

7. Review your processes

Every council’s culture and constitution is different so regular reviews can certainly be helpful. Whether it’s pre-decision scrutiny or call-in, processes need to be regularly fine tuned to ensure they are fit for purpose. When was the last time you reviewed yours?

Seven ways to improve the problem solving power of scrutiny

Scrutiny has seven superpowers and one of them is the power of solutions. 

By taking time to explore difficult and challenging issues in depth, scrutiny has the ability to find solutions to the most difficult policy problems and make recommendations that improve the services that matter to people.

And, by putting backbenchers to work on pressing and intractable problems, the council is making use of an often under used resource. What’s not to like?

Typically this work is done through task and finish inquiry and review work – but not always.

Are you thinking about how scrutiny might be even better at solving problems? Well, here are seven ideas to think about.

Already do all seven? Treat yourself to an extra chocolate biscuit with your next cup of tea.

Listen to the people affected

Whether it’s the people affected by a policy or the people using (or wanting to use) a service, nothing helps with finding solutions better than talking to the people at the sharp end. It’s the Atticus Finch principle: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view” (or her’s of course). See also participation.

Listen to diverse perspectives

If you want to get some creative tension from your evidence gathering (you do) then talk to people with a range of different perspectives (e.g. cabinet members, officers, partners, voluntary sector, citizens). Also, if they all agree that something is a good idea – well it just might be! (that’s triangulation by the way).

Involve academics

You might just find someone with research expertise, working on the same topic and willing to get involved with scrutiny whether as an evidence giver or, even better, a co-opted member of the committee or group. Remember, academics can help with the questions as much as the answers – so involve them early.

Get out and about

Going on field trips to see what’s happening on the ground and talking to the people affected is great way to get new perspectives and ideas. So, go on, hire a bus and leave the town hall behind  you. The great thing about using task and finish groups, by the way, is flexibility. You can meet anywhere, go anywhere, involve anyone and operate any way you want. This helps to break out of the traditional committee mindset and to reframe.

Learn from other councils

Scrutiny reports from other councils who have looked at the same issue are a great source of information and ideas so why not get online and download them. Even better, speak to the councillors and officers involved. Even better still, invite them to give evidence or go and visit them.

Make time to deliberate

One of the (many) great things about the Kirklees Democracy Commission is that they held meetings specifically to give the commission members time and space to deliberate after the evidence had been collected. So much better than just asking for a report to be produced by someone else don’t you think?

Involve the keen beans

One of the cool things that Swansea Scrutiny does (and there are many) is give any backbench councillor the opportunity to be involved in task and finish work. In this way you have the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable scrutineers looking for solutions.



Six frameworks to help demonstrate the impact of scrutiny

Thinking about how you demonstrate the impact of your scrutiny work? Wondering how you might improve? Well, there are frameworks that can help. This post highlights six.

No doubt there are things you are already doing. Annual reports, updates to council meetings, features in council newspapers, press releases, videos, recommendation trackers are just a few of the ways that scrutineers show that they are making a difference.

This post is for anyone who wants to develop or review their approach. It suggests six solid frameworks that can be used and adapted. Hopefully you will find one that you works for you.

Why demonstrate the impact of scrutiny?

There are a number of reasons why you might want to demonstrate the impact of your scrutiny work. It might be a simple concern to know that you are making a difference. It might be that you want to demonstrate to the wider organisation that scrutiny is worth investment. Or it might be to provide assurance to the public that their concerns and issues are being properly addressed.

Whatever the reason, it’s important to know what exactly you want to achieve. After all, if time and effort is going to be spent then it’s good to know why.

Key questions before you start

Before getting into the frameworks here are three questions I think it’s worth asking to prepare the ground:

1.What works well for us already?

This solution focussed question invites you to notice the things that are already effective for you in your own context. What’s working well that might be developed or expanded? What’s working well in one committee that might be tried in others? Are there good examples of demonstrating impact being used for other aspects of council business?

2.Who are our audience and what do they need?

This design thinking question asks you to think about your final product and who will be using it. Whatever the final product you have in mind, you need to talk to whoever you want to impress and find out what they like and what they don’t.

3.Exactly what question should we be trying to answer?

From a research perspective, it’s always worth spending time to the right question. What aspect of impact do you want to focus on?  What’s a meaningful question for your audience? What’s a manageable question to answer given the resources at hand?

Six frameworks

Frameworks can help you in a number of ways. They can help you organise the work you are doing more coherently, provide you with a clear method, give you inspiration, offer something practical you can adapt or maybe just challenge you to think differently.

The frameworks below help you to think about the three main aspects of demonstrating impact; data collection, analysis and presentation.

So, here are the six frameworks (there will be others out there of course).  I hope you find something useful.

1. Policy impact (Constitution Unit, University College London)

Described as the ‘gold standard’ by those in the know, this report details extensive research into the work of parliamentary select committees over a number of years. Usefully the report details eight aspects of policy influence that might be used as hooks to hang a discussion upon:

  • Direct government acceptance of committee recommendations (discussed above) 
  • Influencing policy debate 
  • Spotlighting issues and altering policy priorities 
  • Brokering in policy disputes 
  • Providing expert evidence 
  • Holding government and outside bodies accountable 
  • Exposure 
  • Generating fear (anticipated reactions)

Selective Influence: The Policy Impact of House of Commons Select Committees, Meg Russell and Meghan Benton, Constitution Unit June 2011 (full report here)

2. Outcomes (Institute of Government)

Anything from the Institute of Government is likely to be excellent in my opinion, and this report on parliamentary scrutiny is no exception. It provides a framework for assessing impact that sets out a series of possible outcomes alongside the questions you might want to ask and the quantitative and qualitative evidence that you might need to demonstrate each.  The outcomes are:

  • Evidence
  • Analysis
  • Openness
  • Learning
  • Processes
  • Context
  • Democracy

Parliamentary Scrutiny of Government, Hannah White, Institute of Government, (2015) (full report here)

3.  Results scorecard (City and County of Swansea)

I’m very happy to recommend this approach as it was something I was involved in. ☺️  It’s essentially a mix of Results Based Accountability and the Balanced Scorecard approaches.  Scrutiny’s annual report includes  24 indicators mapped against 4 simple questions. There is a narrative for each question and, because this has been done for a numbest of years, changes over time can be analysed. The 4 questions are:

  • How much scrutiny did we do?
  • How well did we do it?
  • How much did scrutiny affect the business of the Council?
  • What were the outcomes of scrutiny?

You can download the annual report for 17/18 here.


4. Return on investment (Centre for Public Scrutiny)

If you a looking for something a little more hard edged, this report from CfPS (a.k.a. the people who know about scrutiny) should be right up your street.  It takes the idea of ‘return on investment’ (essentially a cost – benefit analysis) and applies it to scrutiny work. Calculating the cost of scrutiny work is perhaps the straightforward part. This report will also help you think about the ‘return’ in terms of:

  • The process benefits
  • The outcome changes

Tipping the Scales, Su Turner and Linda Phipps, Centre for Public Scrutiny (2012)

The report is here.

5. Governance (European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies)

This is my favourite governance framework (we all have one don’t we…). Drawing on a substantial review of the literature, this framework sets out five ‘themes’ that between them cover all of the aspects of governance.  This is helpful if you want to show that scrutiny has an impact on the different aspects of good governance across the organisation.  The framework is known as TAPIC for short which stands for:

  • Transparency
  • Accountability
  • Participation
  • Integrity (things work as they should)
  • Capacity (for policy development)

TAPIC has been published in Strengthening Health System Governance, Greer et al (2016) A shorter summary of the relevant chapter (which is by Greer, Wismar, Figueras and Mckee) can be found here (pdf).

6. Reach and significance (Research Excellence Framework)

This framework comes from the academic world where it has become essential for universities to be able to demonstrate their research impact. It’s not directly scrutiny or governance related but I think this is something that can be adapted.  The key takeaway is that impact can be described in terms of the concepts of reach and significance (breadth and depth if you like) where:

  • Reach = ‘the extent and/or diversity of the beneficiaries of the impact, as relevant to the nature of the impact’.
  • Significance = ‘the degree to which the impact has enabled, enriched, influenced, informed or changed the performance, policies, practices, products, services, understanding, awareness or well-being of the beneficiaries’

Consultation on the draft panel criteria and working methods, REF 2018/02 July 2018 (report here if you want to see it)


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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.


Photo credit

The seven scrutiny kryptonites ☢️

When I wrote about The Seven Scrutiny Powers, I had a reply on twitter mentioning kryptonite.  And I thought, yes, we should be talking about this – aspects of local government culture that neutralise the seven scrutiny superpowers (transparency, accountability, participation, solutions, calling-in, assurance and capacity).

This may seem negative but think of it it as an anti-problem. If we wanted to ensure scrutiny was completely ineffective what would we do? Then we can do exactly the opposite of course.

I’m not claiming that any of this is necessarily intentional.  Rather I suspect that these are culturally convenient ways of doing things that develop, maybe even unconsciously, over time.  So, there is no supervillan, but these kryptonite will be recognisable to anyone who has worked in the scrutiny world.

Also remember, while kryptonite has a negative effect on scrutiny, it also does damage to the rest of the organisation.

And, while each type of kryptonite neutralises some powers more than others, each type of kryptonite has some effect on every aspect of scrutiny.

So, in no particular order there they are.

The Seven Scrutiny Kryptonites

1.  The party card

a.k.a. Political management

While party politics contributes to a healthy local democracy, party politicking, party cliques and the use of the party whip, can all have a negative effect.  Party management can undermine accountability and call-ins by ensuring that backbenchers give executive members from the same party an easy ride and ensure that the most controversial decisions pass unchallenged.

2.  The vault of secrets

a.k.a. Information restriction

The flow of information can be controlled in a number of ways including the overuse of confidentiality clauses, limited information about future cabinet decisions and a culture of keeping rather than sharing.  Information restriction can hinder scrutiny as it seeks to make the organisation more transparent, and as it seeks to plan its work.

3.  The deflector shield

a.k.a. Executive defensiveness

Scrutiny cannot work well if the cabinet are not open to be challenged, are inward looking or take a ‘we know best’ approach.  Executive defensiveness can seriously affect the scrutiny power of accountability and render the solutions proposed from in depth inquiries of little value.

4.   The room of doom

a.k.a. Poor meeting environments

The physical environment that scrutiny is given to work in can have a detrimental effect if the room or the seating arrangements are wrong.  Poor meeting environments can particularly affect the power of participation by isolating the public from councillors and creating an atmosphere of over formality.

5.  The cloak of invisibility

a.k.a. Limited publicity

The oxygen of publicity is important for scrutiny, not least so that the public can get involved.  By offering limited or even no publicity to scrutiny, and focusing instead only on what cabinet and council are doing, scrutiny is left in the shadows and the power of participation is neutralised.

6.  The game of disdain

a.k.a. Talking scrutiny down

The organisational stories that are told about scrutiny affect its status and the way people, particularly councillors, engage with it.  By talking scrutiny down the ability to provide serious accountability is affected as is the potential to offer the organisation additional policy development and problem solving capacity.

7.  The support stiffler

a.k.a. Restricted resources

Decisions about the resources and support available to scrutiny have a major bearing on scrutiny’s ability to work effectively.  Without access to its own advice, support and research, scrutiny becomes dependent on others and limited in what it can do.  When the resources that scrutiny has access to are restricted, at least in comparison, to cabinet, for example, the ability to exercise any of the seven superpowers are limited.

Thank you to @shelleyburke23 for the kryptonite idea and to @alanfinch4 @thomoli @tonybovaird @davidjabb @cfps_ed @jj_mclaughlin @vcusworthlabour @jonathanflowers @bryony1963 for their comments and suggestions.