Home » Blog » Scrutiny

Category: Scrutiny

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

Partners

  • 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.

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.

POW!

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.

 

 

Photo credit here.

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…

 

Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/ow8tLW

 

The International Framework: A great option for your governance review

If you are reviewing the work of your public body and thinking about how your review should be structured, the International Framework is a great option for you to think about.  It sets out seven key principles of good governance and provides plenty of suggestions about what good practice looks like.  

For any public body, change is is the only constant.  As a member of a public body, therefore, you will want to regularly reassure yourself that your governance arrangements are as good as they can be.  You will also want to make regular improvements.  For local councils this type of review is likely to be done by the audit committee.  For other public bodies, such as schools, the work might by done by a sub committee or by the governing body as a whole.

Either way, your governance review needs a structure to ensure that everything that needs to be covered, is covered.

The International Framework

One very robust framework you can use is The International Framework: Good Governance in the Public Sector (2014).  This was developed jointly by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) and the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC).

It can be downloaded from the CIPFA website here.

The International Framework builds on previous similar work, draws on a substantial literature review and is informed by an international panel.  You can be confident that it is tried and tested.

While it has been used to assess the governance of bodies as large as the European Union, it is general enough to be employed by any public body down to the smallest parish council or school.

Seven Principles

This framework suggests seven principles of good governance:

  • Behaving with integrity, demonstrating strong commitment to ethical values, and respecting the rule of law
  • Ensuring openness and comprehensive stakeholder engagement
  • Determining outcomes in terms of sustainable economic, social, and environmental benefits
  • Determining the interventions necessary to optimize the achievement of the intended outcomes
  • Developing the entity’s capacity, including the capability of its leadership and the individuals within it
  • Managing risks and performance through robust internal control and strong public financial management
  • Implementing good practices in transparency, reporting, and audit, to deliver effective accountability

As the report suggests:

The Framework should be useful for all those specifically associated with governance— governing body members, senior managers, and those involved in scrutinizing the effectiveness of governance, including internal and external auditors. It also provides a resource for the public to challenge substandard governance in public sector entities.

Using the International Framework

The report breaks down each principle into sub principles (e.g. Behaving with Integrity) and provides a description of what good governance looks like for each including what, as a governing body, you should be doing, and some useful ‘implementation tips’.

You can use the International Framework to review one aspect of your governance arrangements or you can use it to review the whole lot.

The report is, of course, a general guide and your organisation, the context you work in and your governing body are all unique in many ways.  Good governance is not something that can be taken off the shelf.  General principles, no matter how well researched, always have to be adapted to work in a particular setting.

For this reason you should aim to use this framework (or any other one), as a broad guide to help your own exploration of good governance.

You can use the descriptions as benchmarks and ask a series of key questions:

Is this something we want to do?

What aspects of this do we already do well?

How do we get to the next level?

What practical next steps do we want to try?

How will we know if we have been succesful?

Answering questions like these is always done best in a group; ideally with the whole committee or governing body.  This way you can make use of the expertise that everyone has and their experience of what works.

Even better if you can have good conversations with people outside of your committee or governing body to ensure that you get a truly rich picture.

And if you are looking for a nice way to discuss those questions, why not try zero to ten scales – I’ve written about them here.

 

 

Image: Relationships between the Principles for Good Governance in the Public Sector, from The International Framework: Good Governance in the Public Sector (2014), by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) and the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC). p.11

Improve public engagement by noticing what you do well


Looking elsewhere for good practice may be useful but it’s not always necessary.  By noticing the things that work for you already, you can do more of what works and get inspiration for new things to try.  This point was really well demonstrated at a workshop I ran at last year’s Centre for Public Scrutiny Annual Conference on improving public engagement.

“What works for you already?”

People involved in local government scrutiny want to improve their public engagement work but it’s a challenging aspect of their practice.  It was no surprise, therefore, that this was chosen as a workshop topic at last year’s Centre for Public Scrutiny’s annual conference. It was also no surprise that the workshop was well attended by people who felt stuck on this issue and were keen to find out how to make progress.

However, by focussing on ‘what works for you already?’, we learnt about some great examples – even from the people who felt that they weren’t doing much – it turned out, in fact, that they were!

We used a zero to ten scaling question to find out how well people felt they were doing.  Even though the scores people gave themselves were sometimes quite low, they were able to highlight some really positive practice that had got them to those scores.  In fact, once you start really noticing the things that have worked, you might realise that your score really isn’t as low as you thought.

One example from a council was as follows.  When asked to give a score about their experience of public engagement they gave it only one out of ten. When then asked if they had ever had a good experience, after some reflection they said yes, once we had a really good meeting about the proposed closure of a health centre. After some careful questions it became clear that this had happened because the issue had been spotted by the team in the local press.  Noticing what had worked before led to the idea of scanning the local press for topics that would be of public interest.

Scrutiny practitioner ideas for better public engagement

Just to give you a flavour, below are ten of the good practices for better public engagement that participants noticed.  But remember, the things that are likely to work best for you, in your particular context, might not be the same.

  1. Use third parties to engage with people for you such as partner organisations, voluntary groups and the local media
  2. Use existing council processes to engage through e.g. budget, planning, residents’ associations, social media, media releases, council newspaper
  3. Involve the public in developing your work plan work
  4. Talk and listen to the user / interest groups linked to your council
  5. Use the council comms team to get the most out of traditional and social media
  6. Use committee members to get messages out about scrutiny business and support the especially active councillors to do more
  7. Talk to residents associations and go to their meetings
  8. Use your contacts in other council teams to advise and help you to engage with the people they work with e.g. schools, tenants, community groups
  9. Use social media to contact interested parties
  10. Scan the local media to pick up issues of public concern / issues the public will want to engage with

Noticing what you do well

So, the ideas above might have given you some inspiration but why not try this little exercise yourself?

Ask yourself where you are on a scale of zero to ten, where zero is ‘our public engagement is a complete disaster’ and ten is ‘our public engagement is completely wonderful’.

Got a number?

Good.

Now write down ten things you have done to get you to that number, ten things that mean you are not at zero.

See, you do some good things already.  Now get out there and do some more.

 

P.S. Details of the 2017 Centre for Public Scrutiny Conference can be found here.

Photo credit

Swiss-Army scrutiny is your flexible friend


Scrutiny, whether in local government or elsewhere, can be about so much more than reviewing decisions.  And yet this narrow view often limits the work that scrutineers do and the way that they do it.  But, with a little imagination, the role can add extra value to councils (and other governing bodies) and be more rewarding for those doing the scrutiny.

Not Just Looking Backwards

As a scrutiny team manager in a local council for many years I often heard scrutiny described as ‘the way we look back and review decisions’.  This is, of course, an important aspect of scrutiny but is far from the only thing that scrutiny does.  Indeed, thinking about scrutiny only in this way leads to a very formal process, often with reports being presented in formal meetings by officers and cabinet members in defensive mode.

Scrutiny (and I often wish we could find a better word) is first and foremost a mechanism for engaging all of those councillors who are not in the Cabinet.  While all of these backbenchers may want to get involved in policy making and supporting service delivery in some way, not all want to get involved in the narrow version of scrutiny.  Different councillors have different things they can offer and different interests they want to pursue.

Swiss Army Scrutiny

Instead of the narrow view, we need to think of scrutiny more like a Swiss Army Knife with a range of different tools to do a range of different tasks.  Indeed, if you look around different councils you will see scrutiny councillors working in many different ways and doing many different things.  For example:

  • Policy development ‘task and finish’ groups that gather evidence and report their recommendations
  • One off public hearings that capture local views around issues of concern
  • Performance monitoring panels that receive and challenge reports about service delivery
  • Question and answer sessions to hold cabinet members and other decision makers to account

For every different task there are different ways of doing things.  Yes, formal committee settings are very important sometimes.  But informal meetings have their place as well.  While the rules (formal and informal) that shape how scrutiny operate differ from council to council, they can always be tested and queried.  And I bet you can always find another council doing something differently if you need an example to help you make your case.

And why be limited to those councillors appointed to scrutiny committees? There is no reason to exclude other councillors if they have something to offer.  Involve them as co-optees or simply informally.

After all, backbench councillors are a valuable resource and local councils are hardly in a position to let their resources go to waste.

So think creatively.

Think about how your council can use Swiss-Army scrutiny.