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Getting assurance that services are performing as they should – seven scrutiny ideas


Assurance is one of the seven scrutiny superpowers.

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. Ultimately scrutineers can see themselves as ‘safeguarding services’ – spotting the warning signs of poor performance before things go wrong and ensuring that remedies are being put in place.

Here are some ideas to boost the assurance power of scrutiny.

If you do them all already then well done. Please help yourself to an extra treat from the treat box.

1. Ensure that performance reports work for you

Often the performance reports that come to scrutiny committees follow a standard corporate format but there is no reason why reports can’t be tailored to the needs of scrutineers. Have a conversation with your performance people about what it is you are trying to do, what’s helpful and what’s not. Remember, if you can’t easily understand what the report is saying then chances are that others will be confused as well. You should be able to see the wood from the trees.

2. Get training if you need it

You don’t have to be an expert in any particular service but you should be good at performance scrutiny. It’s always worth the committee taking some time out with the performance team to understand the key concepts and processes. This is also a good opportunity to develop some core questions….

3. Develop some core questions

Whatever the service area there are some general questions that you should return to – partly to ensure a consist approach but also to ensure the best use of time. I would ask ‘is there anything we should be concerned about?’ and ‘is there anything the service is particularly pleased or proud about?’ but that’s just me. Even better is to ask your in house performance experts what they would ask if they were you.

4. Triangulate whenever you can

Typically the performance information that you receive will come through a corporate reporting process. Performance is complex so, whatever the intentions of these processes, they can never tell the whole story. It’s important, therefore, that you triangulate – in other words consider other sources of information (e.g. service user views, complaints, staff opinions, site visits, comparisons with other councils etc etc) to reassure yourself that the story that the performance report is telling stands up.

5. Engage with auditors, inspectors and regulators

Conversations with auditors, regulators and inspectors are helpful for a number of reasons. To gain understating of each others roles, to avoid duplication and to share praise and concerns for example. One idea is for scrutiny and audit chairs to attend each others meetings once a year to present their respective annual work plans. Another is to invite audit committee members to scrutiny training and work planning conferences. Another is to invite inspectors to discuss their service reports at committees. There is plenty of scope for working together.

6. Consider future trends

Assurance is not just about whether services are performing as they should be right now but also about what’s going to happen in the future. So, it’s worth setting time aside to look at how future trends might affect a service and what the responses might be. This framework for scrutiny from the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales might be a helpful starting point.

7. Give praise where it’s due

Identifying concerns is clearly important but so is highlighting good work. This is not just because it’s a nice thing to do (and it is), but because drawing attention to success will help to strengthen services and raise awareness of good practice. More that this it shows that scrutiny is supporting services not just ‘policing’. Importantly praise should be specific and well explained so that it’s clear that scrutiny really understands what has gone well and why.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Promoting public participation: Seven scrutiny power-ups


Participation is one of the seven scrutiny super powers because scrutiny can act as a doorway for the public to get involved in council business. Scrutiny is flexible, one step removed from the decision makers and, through scrutiny councillors, already well connected to the public.

If you are thinking about improving how scrutiny involves the public (not forgetting to pay attention to the good work you are doing already), here are some ideas to think about. 

A big ten out of ten if you already do them all.

Co-opt lay members

Inviting members of the public onto committees and task and finish groups is a great way to get immediate input and involvement. Check out this Centre for Public Scrutiny housing scrutiny report for examples (I contributed by the way).

Commission the public to do research

Another great idea picked up from the Centre for Public Scrutiny housing scrutiny report was to pay a citizens group (in this case a tenants federation) to conduct the inquiry on behalf of scrutiny. At a smaller scale scrutiny might commission citizens as ‘service inspectors’ or ‘mystery customers’.

Hold informal meetings

Formal committee meetings can be a real barrier to the public getting involved. So why not hold meetings informally in community settings. Or have an informal ‘meet and greet’ with tea and biscuits before the formal committee meetings to hear what people think.

Work with the sharers

Ok, so councils might not be the best at involving the public so why not work with and through the organisations that are good at making the connections between everyone. Councils for voluntary services or the media for example.  And of course don’t forget that there are not any people better connected than councillors so make use of them. (see here for more).

Involve the public in your work plan

The public are more like to get involved if scrutiny is looking at the issues that people truly care about. So why not involve the public in setting workplans through surveys or by work planning in public. You can even let the public decide the topics that you will look at – this is something that the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee of the Welsh Assembly did a couple of years ago – they asked the public to pick from one of five topics that the committee had come up with.

Talk to the representative groups

Residents associations, tenants groups, community groups, groups representing parents, carers or anyone else for that matter, can all bring a lot of knowledge about what the people they represent think and feel. So invite them in for a conversation.

Hold public question times

Providing space on agendas for the public to ask questions is a great way to encourage participation. Remember, this works best when people are able to ask questions of decision makers (not just the scrutineers).

 

 

Seven scrutiny power-ups to boost accountability


Accountability is one the seven scrutiny superpowers.

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

If you are wondering how to boost accountability through your scrutiny work, here are some ideas that might be helpful. Gold star if you do them all already.

Independent chairs

Having the scrutiny committees chaired by independent minded councillors will help ensure that accountability is robust. This could mean councillors from outside the ruling party or it could mean chairs elected by secret ballot as happens for parliamentary select committees.

Select committee seating 

Talking about select committees, having cabinet members sat at a separate table, looking into a horseshoe, will help ensure the interpersonal dynamics are right and help observers to see that  serious accountability is taking place. 

Questioning strategies

Effective holding to account means asking the right questions. To ask the right questions the committee needs to have a settled method for preparing them.  

Commitment tracker

When cabinet members make commitments – either in response to scrutiny recommendations or directly to the committee, it’s helpful to log and monitor these commitments. Cabinet members should expect to be held to account for the things they say they will do.

Chair’s letters

Or you can call them scrutiny letters. The accountability relationship between scrutiny and cabinet members is a conversation so letters work really well to capture it as a written public record and a trail that’s easy to follow. Scrutiny writes to the cabinet member and the cabinet member replies – simple. And better than minutes.

Cabinet member Q&As

Set time aside for cabinet members to answer any questions relevant to their portfolios. Even better, invite other councillors and the public to submit ideas for questions.

Portfolio reports

A good basis for a cabinet member Q&A is a portfolio report. It doesn’t need to be long, but asks the cabinet member to provide a written update on the key issues for them at that time – what the biggest challenges are, what’s going well, what’s not going so well.

By the way, these last three have been working well in Swansea (where I worked).

Seven scrutiny power-ups for making the council more transparent


Transparency is one of the seven scrutiny superpowers. 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.

Think about scrutiny as the window that lets the public see what the council is doing.

Sure you are doing great things already but maybe you want to flex your scrutiny super-muscles and take things to the next level.

So, here are seven power-ups. Things that others have found useful – that you might find worth thinking about.

Maybe you are doing all of these already – but, hey, at least that tells you how much of a scrutiny super hero you already are. 💪

 

1. Webcasting

Council meetings are often webcast but what about scrutiny meetings? Webcasting not only gives the public the opportunity to see what’s happening from the comfort of their armchairs but it also opens up the possibility of recording and sharing the good bits. There are many ways to webcast these days so find the way that suits you best.

2. Live tweeting

Live tweeting scrutiny meetings is a great way of making council business more visible, transparent and accessible. And it helps local democracy by reaching out and making connections that might not otherwise have been made. I’ve written up some live tweeting top tips and you can find them here.

3. Better webpages

If scrutiny is a window into the council is doing then the scrutiny webpages are a window for the public to see what scrutiny is doing. Have these pages been designed in a way that’s helpful for people? It’s always worth talking to people about what they are trying to do when they visit your pages and how easy it is for them to do it. You can then makes some changes that make things easier.

4. Snippets

Webpages have snippets. It’s the line or two under the page title that appears when you perform a search. Scrutiny papers could have them too. It might be a simple idea but a short, friendly summary at the top of every agenda and report is a great way to help people navigate through the council paperwork. And when I say short I mean one or two sentences written in the way you would explain to someone in the street. This was an idea I picked up from Diane Simms at a notwestminster event (more about that in this post about making council reports more digestible – plus John Popham promoting the use of video – see 6).

5. Press releases

People still get news through local media so you can boost the visibility of your work by proactively producing press releases. Of course these need to be written in the right way and you’d better talk to your friendly council comms people first.

6. Videos

One of the many great things they are doing in Kirklees is producing and sharing a short video summary before each council meeting. Why not do something similar for scrutiny? It could be great (here is the link to the Kirklees Democracy Commission youtube page if you don’t believe me).

7. Findings reports

OK, you spent months on that big scrutiny review and collected all that evidence. Yes, you’ve summarised it beautifully in your final report but why not publish all the raw data in a format that others can use?  In a spreadsheet maybe? As an added bonus it shows that you are transparent about your own work and don’t mind if people check what you based your excellent recommendations on.