Public accountability charity urges national review of scrutiny mechanism

… “Ultimately in my view, it is weak leaders who seek to control and limit scrutiny; confident leaders can face effective challenge and recognise the value it adds to their decision-making and efforts to improve services.”

The Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) has called for a full national review of the effectiveness of local governance and scrutiny mechanisms.

The call was made after the CfPS published the results of a survey it carried out into the effectiveness of local scrutiny following the findings of the Alexis Jay report into governance weaknesses at Rotherham.

The Centre said this research found that “in a small but worrying minority of councils, local leaders and senior officers appeared to be seeking to control and limit the effectiveness of local overview and scrutiny inquiries”.
Examples included leaders choosing the chairs of scrutiny committees, requests for information being obstructed or refused by senior officers and leading members, and the role of the statutory scrutiny officer being low profile and misunderstood.

However, the CfPS also noted evidence that Monitoring Officers were valued as providing support for effective scrutiny.

“In the vast majority of councils information is provided as requested and as required by law and councillors are providing robust, effective challenge,” it added.

The survey drew responses from 95 local scrutiny functions.
The Centre made six recommendations in addition to its call for a full national review.

These were that:

Local leaders – both members and officers – “should recognise and support the value of effective challenge in helping them improve what they do”;

Councils should review their own member governance in the light of the Francis and Jay reports, if they have not already done so;

Councils should seriously consider how chairs of scrutiny are chosen “and whether they always get the most effective people for this important role, in terms of skills, independence and credibility”;

Regulators and auditors should work with CfPS and others to raise their profile with scrutiny members “to ensure members know how to raise concerns about governance and service performance with the right regulatory bodies”;

Scrutiny and challenge to decision-makers should be informed by the views and experiences of service-users and members of the public, “and members should ensure that when considering performance they are not solely relying on the views of officers to inform their judgments”;

The impact of resource reductions must be included in any national review of the effectiveness of scrutiny and governance at local level.

Jessica Crowe, outgoing Executive Director of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, said: “CfPS’s work over the years has highlighted the value of effective scrutiny in improving local services and giving local people a voice in shaping service plans and decisions.

“However, what we are now seeing is a twin threat to that effectiveness from resource reductions – with resources for scrutiny down to their lowest level in a decade – and a political culture in a small minority of councils which seeks to control and limit its effectiveness.”

She added: “When making difficult and controversial decisions as councils are now faced with doing, strong scrutiny is needed more than ever before. Decisions that have been robustly challenged and passed muster can be seen to be more solidly based, and open, transparent scrutiny is a way of building consensus and engaging communities in those decisions.

“Ultimately in my view, it is weak leaders who seek to control and limit scrutiny; confident leaders can face effective challenge and recognise the value it adds to their decision-making and efforts to improve services.”

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