Cllr Robert Ward represents Selsdon and Addington Village Ward on Croydon Council.

As opposition lead on Croydon Council scrutiny, there have been times in the last three years when I wished for the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes. I suspect, though, that even he would have been challenged to figure out the extent of the shortcomings of Croydon Council. Without access to information, we are all helpless.

At first sight, the enhanced powers of scrutiny members to access information should have solved the case without the need ever to knock on the door of 221b Baker Street at dead of night. The dogged but unimaginative Inspector Lestrade would have cracked the case by lunchtime. Why did it take so long for the truth to come out?

There is no simple answer, but restricted access to information is one reason. According to the Statutory Guidance on Overview and Scrutiny in Local and Combined Authorities “the prevailing organisational culture, behaviours and attitudes of an authority will largely determine whether its scrutiny function succeeds or fails”. A culture of secrecy sets scrutiny up for failure. Breaking down secrecy barriers is crucial to turning things around.

More from the Statutory Guidance:

“Scrutiny members should have access to a regularly available source of key information about the management of the authority”.

That such information must exist should not be a matter of debate. An administration cannot pretend to be in control of an organisation without it. The only question is whether they are willing to share it.

Yet a dashboard of diagnostic data is ineffective without contextual knowledge. Councillors need help to make sense of what they are looking at. Without understanding, it is all too easy for councillors to make vague, unfocussed requests and for officers then to dismiss them as time-wasting or politically motivated fishing exercises. The truth may be a lack of understanding by the councillors, or a handy excuse for officers unwilling to share. What, after all, is wrong with a fishing exercise when it is fishy behaviour that you are trying to catch?

The upside for officers of well-informed councillors is reduced effort. Well-framed questions are a lot easier to answer. Back to the Statutory Guidance: “Authorities should consider whether seeking clarification from the information requester could help better target the request” and “Officers should speak to scrutiny members to ensure they understand the reasons why information is needed”. The latter should not be to seek out reasons for refusal, but to give a better answer.

Sherlock Holmes’ first literary case in Croydon was a murder in Upper Norwood. In The Sign of the Four there is the famous quote that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Councillors are not world-renowned, albeit imaginary detectives. They should not have to submit a succession of questions to eliminate all other possible options to get to the truth.

Questions clearly expressed should elicit a response in plain English. It is for officers to figure out how to give an informative and diagnostic answer, not for councillors to decode answers written in elliptical officer-speak or spend hours searching for gaps. Back to the Statutory Guidance: Authorities should “ensure the information is supplied in a format appropriate to the recipient’s needs”.

Unlike the characters in Conan Doyle’s books, several of which were written during the years he lived in Croydon, the Council “should adopt a default position of sharing the information they hold, on request, with scrutiny committee members”. What is more, even if information cannot be shared publicly, the Council “should give serious consideration to whether that information could be shared in closed session”.

But enough of the Statutory Guidance – I recommend you read it for yourself; here is my quick assessment guide of your access to information service:

  • Do you have a dashboard with comparative performance data?
  • Is there a presumption that requested information will be provided?
  • Is provision as a confidential item always considered for what cannot be shared publicly?
  • Do councillors know how a request should be made and to whom?
  • Are there time limits on provision of responses?
  • Is performance against those time limits monitored and published at least annually?
  • Is there an appeal process for refusals?
  • Are written reasons for refusal provided to the full committee, in public, on request?

At a more emotional level, if the response to information requests leaves you feeling like you are dealing with Professor Moriarty, you have a problem.