Solace Blog

The Problem with Overview and Scrutiny

Ed Hammond, Director at the Centre for Public Scrutiny

I don’t need to remind anyone reading this blog about the huge changes currently affecting the sector in which we all work. We appear at the moment to be working in a landscape which pushes us towards innovation while simultaneously pulling us away. The scandal around the collapse of Carillion highlights the dangers and risks around outsourcing. The emerging operational lessons from Grenfell, about the way that we manage long contractual chains, are becoming apparent. At the same time, we have to start and continue to do things very differently in order to manage what is an exceptionally uncertain future funding situation.

To talk about these kinds of situations as “burning platforms” – the kind of immediate pressures which lead to innovation – is simplistic and trite. In truth, the burning platform analogy makes sense if you are jumping from it onto something that you are confident looks like solid ground. It might be better to conceive of local government, at the moment, standing on a burning platform at night, in dense fog, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. We need to jump, but once we have done, we’re in the face of another, equally immediate, problem.

It is easy to get despairing about this. These are tough problems; as professionals we are trained to deal with and tackle them. But there are many of these problems, many of them are interconnected, and it is difficult enough managing the day-to-day, without peeping over the top of your monitor to view the expansive, existential threats which we fear will come to do our sector such damage in the coming years.

I want to talk about the potential for member-led overview and scrutiny to help to solve some of these problems, and I can already hear the weary exhalations of breath and groaning as I do so. Scrutiny is great, I suppose, at keeping members busy, and at engaging them in discussion on fairly limited issues. But this stuff? It is moving so fast, with so many complex moving parts, that we can barely understand it ourselves. Members are keen, and most are very capable. But what could they add?

There are probably two areas where I think scrutiny can make a contribution as the coming months unfold.

The first is on perspective. If you are reading this you a probably a senior officer if not a chief executive. Your viewpoint will be informed by your own experiences, and your engagement with local government services over the course of your life will be as a professional rather than as a service user. You may engage with local people rarely, if ever, and when you do that engagement is likely to be sporadic rather than sustained. This is not a sly criticism – it is a reflection of the reality of operating strategically at senior level.

Councillors, and scrutiny, provides you with perspective and insight which sits outside of your conventional management processes. This is insight derived from members’ work on the doorstep. It is anecdotal, and it will challenge your preconceptions about what local people want and need. Scrutiny ought to be a way to give voice to this insight, and it’s part of your job to make sure that councillors can use scrutiny to apply it to the big challenges facing the authority.

The second issue relates to risk. The authority – led by Cabinet – may have a settled appetite for risk but this may not be shared by all councillors. You need certainty that all councillors understand the big changes that are coming, the risks and drivers that surround those issues. The better that councillors understand risk (and are able to work through its implications via the scrutiny process) the better the insight (and realism) that you will see coming out of the scrutiny process; the more confident you can also be that, come a change in control (or in leadership) you know that councillors across the authority know and understand these issues and that you also understand where they are coming from – giving you reassurance from a business continuity point of view.

These are two issues – but there are more. Acting on them requires thinking about scrutiny as a strategic resource, as a space for allowing the authority to think, rather than as a churn of information reports. But for this to happen it’s also necessary for you as a senior leader to take action – to speak the language of scrutiny and to vocally recognise its potential to bring valuable insight to bear on how you go about your work, now and in the future.