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Mail Jessica Crowe, Executive Director of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, responds to critics of the effectiveness and expense of Council scrutiny arrangements.

Here at the Centre for Public Scrutiny we have a comprehensive knowledge base about overview and scrutiny in local government. This level of insight is rare since practical experience of scrutiny’s development in one authority does not necessarily allow conclusions to be drawn about the development of the function nationwide – how scrutiny develops in one place can be very different to how it develops in another.

Having recently published our analysis of the 2008 CfPS annual survey of overview and scrutiny in local government the Centre is in a good a position to assess trends in overview and scrutiny. Reading the responses to your article entitled Who will scrutinise the scrutineers? and to an article by London Assembly Member Roger Evans entitled Opposing the opposition it surprised me to see so many people condemning overview and scrutiny as unworkable. There seems to be a contrast between those who dismiss overview and scrutiny as a negative, ‘New Labour creation’ and those whose direct experience of the process has led to a more positive viewpoint. We observe that perceptions amongst Conservative Councillors are as diverse as the models of scrutiny in local government themselves.

To say, as one blogger did, that “scrutiny does not work, will never work and that is exactly the way that the Labour party designed it” assumes that overview and scrutiny has developed in a universally unsuccessful way and flatters central government by suggesting that it has been pushing a clear policy agenda for scrutiny over the last ten years – which I can say with confidence is far from being the case.

Overview and scrutiny has shown its capacity to adapt to its new surroundings, finding ways to add the most value. As a result scrutiny can look very different from one authority to another. Blanket conclusions that overview and scrutiny never works are simply not backed up by the evidence – and one of the tests of scrutiny is whether it is evidence based.

It is probably fair to say that in many instances scrutiny could be more effective at demonstrating its effectiveness outside town hall. Scrutiny is beginning to find its voice in the local press and online but awareness of scrutiny amongst the general public remains disappointingly low. As a result scrutiny can often be seen as a luxury, particularly when the public purse strings are tight. However, high-quality scrutiny work can and has in many instances, resulted in dramatically improved services for local people. Take the example of Coventry, where scrutiny’s work with the NHS resulted in immediate improvements to hospital infection control and in the information available to residents. Or Telford and Wrekin, whose scrutiny members have established a Value for Money Panel, which sits monthly and has made a number of recommendations for the improvement of council services.

Scrutiny of financial issues is becoming increasingly important in the current economic climate. This is a reason to give more credence to scrutiny rather to ignore it, as demonstrated at Cambridgeshire County Council. In many authorities backbench members criticise the concentration of power over budgetary decisions in the hands of the cabinet, but Cambridgeshire have adopted an approach which, through scrutiny, has allowed backbench members to have direct and early involvement in the budget setting process – far more so than would have happened under the old committee system. Budgetary discussions at scrutiny can serve to take the worst elements of party politicking out of the budget setting process, ensuring that it is based on evidence, and that the picture that the public take away from the process is one of reasoned discussion rather than fractious, and ultimately unproductive, arguments in full Council.

If it’s true that, despite examples of excellent work, scrutiny’s impact is difficult to measure in some authorities, a trend that we can track with confidence is the provision of dedicated officer support and discretionary funding for local authority overview and scrutiny. Our research demonstrates clear links between support for scrutiny and its effectiveness. The 2008 survey reveals an average of just over two dedicated scrutiny officers across all authorities, which is not a large resource, given the size of the services under scrutiny. Discretionary scrutiny budgets have felt the squeeze – the average fell 16% since 2007 to just under £10,000. More champions of good overview and scrutiny are needed in local government if increased public involvement which all parties promise, can be delivered.

Nobody is pretending that politics never plays a part in scrutiny. In some authorities it appears that the value of overview and scrutiny is limited by the dominance of party politics. But there are many authorities where scrutiny has overcome partisan concerns to champion the needs and concerns of local people. For example, Maidstone Borough Council established a Youth Scrutiny Committee in 2008, made up of local children aged between 13 and 17. They set their own work programme, deciding to focus on Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) as something with which they could have the maximum impact. Evidence was gathered from a wide range of witnesses, and drawn together into a final report with recommendations that was presented to Full Council, receiving the support of all political parties as well as significant local press coverage. Recommendations are being pushed forward at a local level through secondary schools, Local Children’s Services Partnerships and relevant partner organisations.

The fact is that many Conservative Councillors are advocates of overview and scrutiny and in reality there may be little appetite to return to the committee system. Overview and scrutiny should be seen as a logical, versatile and democratic solution to the consensus around increased public involvement and engagement, and the ‘accountability gap’ likely to be created by lighter touch regulation. To dismiss overview and scrutiny without having a reasoned conversation about its effectiveness and value would be unwise.

For my details of how good scrutiny works look here.

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