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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…

 

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.