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Building a supportive culture for scrutiny: Scrutiny meetup notes #7

In this meet up we worked on the tricky issue of the organisational culture that supports scrutiny (or not).

First we used a Venn diagram to find out how the ‘three pillars of scrutiny” (Culture, Process, Structure) were working for everyone. As you can see above, the most common position is to have process and structure working well but organisational culture (conditions) not so much.


We then ran some zoom polls (a first for the meetups) to explore the ‘six conditions for effective scrutiny’ taken from research by Dave.

Here are the results of the three questions we asked of the group:

  1. Which condition are you most pleased about?
  • Cross party working – 5
  • Councillor engagement – 5
  • Relationship with the executive – 1
  • Role in council governance – 4
  • Senior officer buy-in – 6
  • Direct scrutiny support – 6

2. Which condition are you most concerned about?

  • Cross party working – 3
  • Councillor engagement – 3
  • Relationship with the executive – 8
  • Role in council governance – 5
  • Senior officer buy-in – 7
  • Direct scrutiny support – 1

3. Which condition has the most potential to be improved?

  • Cross party working – 2
  • Councillor engagement- 5
  • Relationship with the executive – 8
  • Role in council governance – 3
  • Senior officer buy-in – 7
  • Direct scrutiny support – 2

As you can see, a real spread for each of the three questions showing, for this group at least, there really is no one size fits all (although plenty of scope for working on the relationship with the executive perhaps).

Walk Around

We then used a liberating structure in development called Walk Around to get people to talk in groups about their choices for questions 1 and 2. Here are some of the ideas from the discussions that participants shared in the chat:

Thinking about your organisation- Which condition are you most pleased about? What, practically, does scrutiny do to help make this possible?

Cross-party working

  • Proportionate representation on committee and task groups. 
  • Minority parties are usually keen to take part without being political.
  • Hearing the opposition spokespeople in a less combative situation

Councillor Engagement

  • Councillor engagement demonstrates enthusiasm!  it needs channelling and direction some times but of itself is a sign of a healthy democracy
  • Giving Councillors on a review a specific lead role
  • All non exec councillors are on a scrutiny committee and work groups
  • An officer from Stevenage had a great suggestion about giving individual members aspects of topics to research

Relationship with the executive

  • Writing papers on relevant issues
  • Consensus building on topic specific task groups.  
  • Regular informal meetings between cabinet member and chairman with open invite to scrutiny for the cabinet member

Governance role

  • Input and review of constitution supplemented by comprehensive set of procedure notes.
  • Structure set out in the Constitution

Senior officer buy-in

  • Addressing officer anxieties, outlining positive advantages of engaging, benefits to relations with members
  • Informal discussions between scrutiny officers and senior officers about the process and creating a degree of familiarity to help build the relationship.
  • Have a set of informal conversations (i.e. fortnightly or monthly catch ups via teams) with officers . Informal relations are key

Direct support

  • It works really well being an officer that purely supports scrutiny only as it means that you can be independent from the functioning of the Council in order to provide more independent challenge. It also means you don’t end up stepping on others toes and can push for things that you might not otherwise be able to.

Thinking about your organisation- Which condition are you most concerned about? What is the specific challenge and what would you like to see happening instead?

Cross party working 

  • Trying to break up group members sitting together, pick & mix sit next to someone from another party to try to get scrutiny to be non party.
  • Use task and finish groups to get people away from political groups!
  • Specific challenge is a lack of cross party working and there is a structural change occurring with Scrutiny and so for Scrutiny to work there needs to be a better focus. So I hope to see a work programme that allows for this.
  • Not sitting in political groups during scrutiny meetings.

Governance role

  • Challenge of maintaining scrutiny during lockdown.  learning from this experience to have in place an arrangement that allows senior scrutiny members to keep abreast of issues to formulate a work programme for post spike
  • concerns – role of governance. challenge of balance with scrutiny and Covid,
  • Challenge is how to handle Covid. We need to have the debate rather than ignore the issue.
  • A proper covid scrutiny role for our overview/management committee
  • How to scrutinise without adding pressure? How does scrutiny evolve to keep members informed and on the issues that matter whilst also not making a difficult situation more difficult?
  • Maintaining O&S during covid and zoom meetings but now it is up and running evidence gathering meeting tonight and another next week

Executive Scrutiny relationship 

  • Better engagement. Seeing scrutiny as support.
  • Discuss with other officers what decision are coming up during the year so you can help facilitate some pre-decision scrutiny before it even goes on the forward plan.
  • Trust and engagement

Senior Officer buy-in

  • Better communication and understanding of scrutiny’s role
  • I do feel better that others feel the same as me about senior officer buy-in – I am not alone!!

Sponsor a scrutiny officers zoom meetup

We are looking for sponsors in addition to our main supporter, the Centre for Public Scrutiny. Have a look below and see if it’s right for your organisation.

What are scrutiny zoom meetups?

During the lockdown Dave Mckenna and Matt Clack have been running some scrutiny zoom meetups. These are a free, informal opportunity to network and share some ideas and good practice for scrutiny. They are aimed at scrutiny officers and councillors are also very welcome. We have attendees from a range of councils from across England and Wales. The meetups keep growing and, based on what we hear from participants, we expect they will continue well after the current crisis,

As well as sharing helpful practice, these meet ups have been a chance for scrutiny officers to get more used to Zoom as a way of working together and supporting each other. From our evaluation forms, here are some of the things that people like about the meet ups:

  • It was good to get an idea of where people are at, hearing different perspectives/experiences from colleagues about the challenges/solutions in their authorities, the fact that we were a mixed bunch was useful
  • Was well chaired and the technology worked well
  • Being able to share thoughts and challenges within the breakout rooms
  • Learning about liberating structures
  • Hearing what worked well/didn’t work well
  • Networking with other officers around the country without leaving home. We should have an online meet-up even when we return to the office
  • There was really good thinking on the topics and brainstorming of ideas that I found helpful and I am feeding this back in my Team
  • Involvement of a wide range of wonderful people willing to give good practical support and advice so that being a scrutiny officer is not such a lonely existence

We have had a steady increase in sign-ups since we started in April with over 50 signing up for our 30th June meetup. A new mailing list, started in Mid-June, has over 60 subscribers.

Sponsoring a meetup (or three)

Sponsorship will pay for some of our time and allow us to keep facilitating the meetups, which we started as volunteers.

As a sponsor you will have your logo, linked to your website, featured on the event sign-up page, a special mention in the mailout and a special shout out from us at the start of each meetup.

We also hope you will join us at the meetups you sponsor. The meetups are highly interactive and, as a participant you will get the chance to mix with the attendees.

Contact Dave if you are interested and for details of our very modest sponsorship rates.

Virtual meetings, health scrutiny, recovery planning and work planning. Scrutiny zoom notes #5

Here are the notes from scrutiny officers zoom meet-up on 10th June. We used an Open Space format and here are the top tips shared by participants from their various conversations. Thanks everyone!

Virtual meetings

  • appeared to be more interest in our virtual meeting than our normal meeting. Good opportunity to enhance knowledge of what scrutiny is about.
  • IT equipment used by members should be corporate so it can be fully supported. Not 40 members with all different equipment.
  • Different systems produce the same outcome!!
  • ensure everybody involved has plenty of opportunity to familiarise themselves with the technology and meeting etiquette
  • ensure sufficient number of support staff available to aid the efficient running and broadcasting of a meeting
  • Quick learning as we go along …
  • Creating a private WhatsApp group with the Chair during virtual meetings
  • It is interesting that not all authorities have live meetings but put them online afterwards.
  • Learning from experience and adapting approach to virtual meetings as may need to be different to face to face meetings due to video meeting fatigue etc.
  • Members more mindful of live meetings.
  • More public watching virtual meetings than would have attended at the Town Hall.
  • need to ensure additional democratic services support for meetings to deal with technical support.
  • Officer Support during meetings
  • Resource intensive – require other officers to help webcast the meetings.
  • the importance of practice
  • Understand the application you are going to use for your meetings and become an expert before any meetings take place.
  • Practice practice practice.
  • Get team support when holding meetings.
  • Useful to watch online again to capture text for the minutes.
  • Virtual meetings – Different tech being used across UK – Not always the same approaches.
  • Virtual meetings – some Councils needing extra resources to run the meetings virtually. Puts a strain on others.
  • Virtual meetings are very resource intensive
  • Whether the minutes for online meetings should be shorter/different from those for physical meetings at the Town Hall.
  • Never ask for Feedback via email/questionnaire get it from people before they leave the room
  • Retaining the use of virtual meetings for use in the future
  •  Acknowledge extra resources for virtual meetings
  • Trying to get hold of the paid version of Zoom
  •  Virtual meetings preparation is key before formal meetings
  • Continuing to use video meetings for evidence gathering and member briefings

Health scrutiny

  • doing health scrutiny at the right level – local, sub-regional etc. how to decide which level?
  • it’s time to start engaging with NHS partners again
  • remember JHOSCs
  • general concern about NHS transparency
  • Is the focus too much on hospitals and not enough on care in care homes or the community?
  • June 15th deadline for letting NHS England which changes are going to be permeant
  • link into normal health scrutiny workplan in addition to Covid19.
  • Possible need for informal meetings with partners before launching into a formal public meeting.
  • Possible pan-London scrutiny
  • Getting health scrutiny up and running again
  • can individual health scrutiny committees actually look at covid response or does it need to be wider (sub regional)?
  • health scrutiny – challenge on whether the pandemic means they will organise themselves differently in future – and not stop footprints!!

Recovery planning

  • pre-empt politics and guide focus towards service outcomes
  • involve all in the recovery planning phase and the scrutiny of it
  • Getting CEX and senior officer buy-in, Leader and other group leaders support.
  • Scrutiny briefings with the Chair and key officers
  • Scrutiny to look at Recovery Plan
  • Scrutiny to look at recovery plan (as well!)
  • scrutiny to start with recovery plan and drill down from there
  • To drill down on the recovery plan

Work planning

  • ‘Paper criteria’ for work planning
  • all Councils working at different speeds in work planning
  • All future topics will be within the context of Covid
  •  Live virtual meetings (so far) have stifled debate


  • Innovation as ‘bravery to fail’ and creating small changes/innovations that making failing more palatable!
  • draw on techniques like agile programme management and design thinking- don’t believe that the parameters of governance will restrict your ambition to innovate!



How can we best support public engagement in scrutiny at the time of Covid-19? Scrutiny zoom notes #4

At this zoom meet up 30 participants worked on the question How can we best support public engagement in scrutiny at the time of Covid-19? using ‘appreciative interviews’.

Thank you so much to everyone for their time and their contributions.

We had had over 60 ideas and I’ve organised them into 9 answers in no particular order. I hope I’ve done the discussion justice.

How can we best support public engagement in scrutiny at the time of Covid-19?

  • Work flexibly
  • Communicate well
  • Address what matters right now
  • Work effectively with councillors
  • Develop our digital presence
  • Use our networks
  • Start with the end in mind
  • Respect the public
  • Get the basics right

Here are all of the ideas in full:

Work flexibly

  • Relax the rules – not so rigid 
  • Informal opportunities for public to engage
  • Small informal groups like Task and Finish rather than formal meetings
  • Accessibility!  this means online as well as in person – it means being aware of time frames and doing things more quickly if needed and not being so concerned about meeting protocols
  • Oh and flexibility
  • Use task and finish groups 
  • Less rigid/more informal to encourage participation

Communicate well

  • Being honest with what scrutiny can or can’t do
  • Keeping the Local Democracy Reporter informed about the democratic process
  • Openly and widely informing the public of meetings 
  • Scrutiny access to comms – social media
  • Clear guidance to give confidence to people attending – giving evidence
  • Provide information
  • Be clear about why we are trying to engage people 
  • Good comms
  • Being honest about things which didn’t go well, so residents feel like they have a full picture
  • Explain up front any ‘rules’ that cant be  broken , eg procurement and due diligence
  • When recommendations from the public haven’t been adopted, share reasoning.

Address what matters right now

  • Relevance and leadership
  • Provide leadership, reassurance and local answers to the things that matter at this time
  • We need to ask relevant questions, where the answers will actually make a difference to residents
  • Right topic and right time (makes it easier to get engagement) 
  • Prioritising work
  • Having a subject that the public are passionate about
  • Be willing to invest the time to find out what’s relevant to the individual
  • Ask people what they are worried about

Work effectively with councillors

  • Ensure that member engagement is reset
  • Members bought into benefits of public engagement and what to do with the feedback
  • Briefing members so that they are well informed and able to ask challenging questions
  • Greater use of the member communication platform
  • Engage with members better first to enable them to engage with the public better
  • Informal networks utilising Members -e.g. asset based community development (ABCD)
  • Get members to think like users, make the issue really understandable
  • Councillors provide individuals who are stakeholders or people who care about an issue that’s relevant to them

Develop our digital presence

  • Involve people in online meetings – people have got used to doing Zoom/Teams meetings so you may be able to access people you haven’t done before
  • Maximising use of social media
  • Social media to reach out (being mindful of digital exclusion as restrictions lift)
  • Right virtual environment (safe space)
  • Buy in virtual experts
  • Stop hiding the scrutiny page on the website
  • Continually asking: “who cannot access this?” to ensure no one is being digitally excluded in this increasingly digital-reliant time  
  • Engage with social media and try to incentivise
  • Web access and availability, relevant topics
  • Think about how virtual enables us to reach the disengaged or those who can’t work out how the authority website works
  • Use non online methods

Use our networks

  • Using existing networks
  • Use existing networks
  • Use healthwatch

Start with the end in mind

  • Be clear about the role and impact of scrutiny
  • Outcomes required to ensure public engagement is useful
  • Managing expectations – have realistic outcomes for people who get involved

Respect the public

  • Respect the public
  • Trust, accessibility, expectations, awareness raising, feedback
  • Resources required for public engagement but this is being taken up with organising virtual meetings
  • Making sure people get feedback after the event – what actually happened as a result of their engagement!

Get the basics right

  • Right environment
  • Good prep
  • Establish clear ground rules for online focus groups
  • Right witnesses
  • Need to ensure public gives sufficient evidence to back up concerns
  • Tempting people in
  • Consider offering incentives to engage in consultation – prize draw? relevant merchandising 
  • What contact details do participants have to provide to take part in a focus group

What can we usefully learn from Virtual scrutiny meetings so far? Scrutiny zoom notes #3

We had 30 people attending this scrutiny zoom meet up (thanks everyone) and the main activity was a Users Experience Fishbowl looking at early experiences of virtual scrutiny meetings. In the fishbowl we had four officers and one councillor from West Sussex, Redbridge, Devon and Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole councils.

The main learning points from the participants were:

  • That it can be a positive experience
  • Importance of having a trial run
  • Some of the tactics and approaches being used to demonstrate the continued need for scrutiny during this time
  • How virtual meetings are improving culture in meetings
  • It’s like a cake and the outcome depends on getting the right ingredients for your authority 
  • The importance of championing Scrutiny at this time when we are likely to get pushback from officers 
  • Need to get the ingredients in the right order, quantity and quality to get the best virtual meeting cake.
  • Involvement of other SC members in Overview Board/ Committee 
  • The concept of member-led working groups contributing a new angle
  • Scrutiny is here to help and able to support the Covid19 response is a good way of getting support from officers
  • Preparation and reassurance for chairmen.  
  • Just do it. 
  • Trial runs, scripts, and protocols make for good meetings
  • Importance of scrutinising the Covid response, whilst balancing the pressure that those services are already under, and getting management buy-in to do so.
  • Very good to hear from those that have had virtual meetings and especially from Cllr Broadhead as chair of a virtual meeting, very interesting.
  • The need to have a good protocol for virtual meetings
  • Lots of helpful lessons learnt and practical points to support virtual meetings. E.g. trial runs, having clear roles on the day, member training and more!
  • Organisational culture remains key – find a way for scrutiny to assist more than challenge
  • The idea that Scrutiny can help by capturing real time thought and reflection – video diary testimony perhaps – on the response to Covid.  Museums are asking for diaries and memories – perhaps Scrutiny can help curate contributions so that relevant memories are not forgotten or lost.  
  • Identify the issues that resonate for departments and partners.
  • How many people live streamed / watched a meeting! Public interest is high
  • Combining Committees to streamline the process
  • Lots of tips on running the meeting effectively and specially to remind colleagues of how scrutiny can be a positive experience and a way to showcase the good work. And bring much needed transparency on the decisions being made.
  • Everyone is facing the same challenges throughout the UK & we need to keep promoting the importance of scrutiny.
  • New approaches being put in place and made to work quickly. Will be good to hold on to this openness to try new things and also evaluate what of old ways is worth going back to

How might scrutiny add value and support frontline services right now? Scrutiny zoom notes #2

How might scrutiny add value and support frontline services right now?

At the scrutiny officers zoom meet up on 21st April we worked on this question and made the following list.

Thank you so much to the 20 participants from across the country who took part 👏

  • Help to gather feedback on peoples experience of services over the last few weeks
  • Raise awareness of what is going on and service changes
  • Looking at Business Continuity Plans to see how they are being used at the moment.
  • Engage the community on what has worked and what hasn’t in terms of covid response
  • There could be some discrete task and finish work on topics such as refuse collection and disposal, safeguarding and school attendance.
  • Feeding in community insight/on the ground experiences
  • Scrutinising the application of the emergency plan – is it doing what it is supposed to do?
  • Keeping things on track with timings and targets
  • Asking about alternative plans
  • Dissemination of local Covid-19 information via a weekly All Member Briefing.
  • Bringing a degree of transparency to decision-making processes and oversight of decisions, as well as bringing valuable community intelligence on cases
  • Hold council to targets and timelines to help keep on track and avoid any drift
  • Bringing together information on the key activities.
  • Community engagement – what is working and what isn’t working.  Are you getting the food parcels etc. 
  • Role of Public Health as a bridge between LA and health partners
  • Chance for officers to explain how services have had to adapt and how this has been done
  • Drawing on community insights and councillor knowledge
  • Assist in post covid recovery efforts in task and finish groups
  • Look at the processes that are being used and how they could be improved
  • Officer knowledge should be captured in strategies/documents so that information can be passed on to colleagues coming into their service
  • Logging decisions and reasons for those
  • What would have helped us respond to this better/quicker?
  • We also considered the degree to which Scrutiny should not distract and considered renaming it to something that looked more practical – task and finish orientated
  • Be agile and flexible in how scrutiny is structured
  • Local decision making related to Covid-19. e.g. closure of different services that are open elsewhere or the opposite
  • Learning valuable lessons as we go along, not leaving it for a debrief
  • Allow the public to input in to service changes (understand the ned for them)
  • We also looked at how emergency plans had stood up to reality 
  • Ensuring coordination between directorates 
  • Ensuring delegated decisions are also being communicated properly
  • Checking that our safeguarding of children remains strong.  Ensuring care workers are properly equipped. Is the emergency plan working? What about issues arising now? eg flytippin – Covid can’t take over everything.
  •  How to influence/shape the economic recovery.
  •  We looked public health function of LA
  •  Scrutiny to be the mech to circulate information to enable people to understand what is happening during these times.
  •  Help to prioritise services in the future and review comms
  •  Oversight of strategic decisions, especially on budgets being redirected
  •  Assessing the effectiveness of the local emergency response
  •  Vulnerable children kept safe 

How might we best use video calls to support scrutiny? Scrutiny zoom notes #1

Along with Matt Clack [@m_ttclack] I facilitated a zoom meet up for scrutiny officers on 7th April 2020 – week three of the lockdown.

We described it like this:

This is an informal (and free of course) opportunity to network and share some ideas and good practice around using video calls for scrutiny. Aimed at scrutiny officers – councillors also welcome.

It will be a chance for us all to try out Zoom as a way of working together (and to experience making Zoom calls if you haven’t used it before).

In all 16 attended from right across the country – these are the notes we collected and shared from the meet up.

Thank you so much to everyone who took part and contributed – hope it was useful.

Our Best hopes for the meet up:

  • Find out how scrutiny is going to continue when most officers are redeployed or carrying out essential roles
  • ideas on scrutiny continuing to be relevant
  • To find out what other authorities are doing to arrange scrutiny with the current arrangements.
  • No plans for Scrutiny at the moment, but interested to see what challenges others had faced if they held a meeting so far
  • Share top tips and warts and all!
  • Find out how other authorities are trying or considering starting to reintroduce scrutiny in the Council’s business- how are they starting to re-engage members and senior management?
  • find what software people have tried and what works well or doesn’t work well
  • To find out the approach to holding mtgs and what software people are looking at using
  • hope is to share experiences and what others are planning in terms of meetings going forward.
  • what other people are doing in the way of scrutiny within today’s environment. Hint, tips, thoughts and ideas and learning from others
  • to find out what others doing re: scrutiny and virtual meetings. or what planned
  • sharing experiences, tips and hints on It options, etc, but also how to scrutinise during the health emergency-
  • To get a sense of the national support that we at CFPS can provide – both on remote meetings and no substantively what scrutiny can be doing
  • General sense that scrutiny is not happening – after thought
  • What systems is everyone using – have you tested it yet?
  • also about how to scrutinise effectively in these challenging times

How should we keep in touch?

  • More virtual meetings like this would be useful.
  • Establish forum/more sessions of this nature
  • This works well
  • regular zoom/virtual meetings, emails
  • First time using Zoom, very useful. But we use MS Teams in St Helens, very good for messaging and video calling
  • this has worked well 👍
  • Linkedin
  • virtual sessions
  • I’d be keen to have periodic meetings like this, but we at CFPS are also seeing what we can do to systematically support regional scrutiny networks where they exist
  • connecting so important! more meetings like this please
  • We use MS Teams too – just testing Teams Events
  • Regular zoom network of scrutiny officers (regional if national will be too many)
  • Could use email, linked in forums, more of these sessions
  • NW Employers have a good online portal they use for Scrutiny in the North West
  • who is “we”?

How might we best use video calls to support scrutiny?

  • Great to engage witnesses in select committee style scrutiny
  • Informal working – briefings from officers, task and finish – pre-meetings will be v important
  • Can be more flexible on meeting times
  • more informal joint meetings
  • Networking across wider area – health issues will cut across geographies
  • Need to consider how voting will work
  • where there are 2 or more tiers better access to what the other is up to
  • Chair and Portfolio Holder meetings can be facilitated quite easily through Teams to keep scrutiny up to date
  • Ensure that considerations are taken for the difficulties that this may cause especially for Members who may have disabilities
  • For us at CFPS it’s about using video calls to support sharing and learning (and potentially member training too)
  • engaging a wider audience
  • normal structures can work, but must ensure that the etiquette and trust is there
  • Needs more than one committee support officer usually
  • The environment has now changed, therefore scrutiny can be done differently. Questioning sessions of Cabinet etc
  • Needs member buy-in
  • Is it possible to hear from higher profile leaders in government etc?
  • Questions in advance of meetings
  • One to one catch ups with Chairs. Formal meetings may need more than one officer.
  • informal chair/vc briefings as otherwise these cross-party discussions wont happen
  • chairman needs to be more proactive in managing virtual meetings
  • less rigid meetings – can be more flexible to fit around members and officers – better attendance
  • video good for personal connections, ensuring there are no misunderstandings or interpretations and vital for member/officer contact as members skill sets will vary
  • Lots of good points here, also ensuring that local people can also engage as fully as before
  • It’s great for informal sessions, pre-meetings with Chair/Vice Chair & updates from relevant Director
  • members submitting q’s in advance but allowing supplementary q’s
  • Means of keeping backbenchers informed – crucial
  • joint scrutiny could become easier
  • Ensuring quorum if Members lose access during the meeting
  • short agendas
  • work programme planning with committee members
  • video meetings with chair and vice-chairs of osc, ceo and members of the leadership team to keep up regular contact.
  • non formal meetings at shorter notice – scrutiny Cllr and portfolio holder questions etc
  • Inviting people to take part in scrutiny from across the country
  • local and national network meetings
  • Understand the need for flexibility, but perhaps more structure is needed in order to ensure people don’t talk over each other etc? Questions in advance
  • ensure quorate
  • Need to ensure this doesn’t replace physical meetings forever
  • if member sick or forgets to attend an appeal ot sub committee – can bring another in at short notice virtually – have members on standby at home just in case