Overview and scrutiny in local government post-COVID-19
In challenging times, it is crucial to have the right checks and balances in place
Senior Consultant, Campbell Tickell
New statutory guidance on the overview and scrutiny function in local government was issued in May 2019. As the guidance reminds us: ‘Overview and scrutiny committees were introduced in 2000 to ensure that members of an authority who were not part of the executive could hold the executive to account for the decisions and actions that affect their communities', and they have 'statutory powers to scrutinise decisions the executive is planning to take, those it plans to implement, and those that have already been taken/implemented'.
But these are tough times for local government. There are financial pressures and uncertainty to manage, the looming prospect of Brexit, and the challenges associated with delivering and funding social care. And that is before you throw COVID-19 into the mix.
Value of scrutiny
It is at times like these that scrutiny can seem most burdensome, not to mention a thankless task. But arguably, it is also when it matters the most that it is done, and done well. The more complex and challenging the circumstances, the more significant decisions that are taken may prove to be. And the more scope there should be for scrutiny to add value and act as a safeguard.
Put most simply, this is good governance: a mechanism to make sure that those who exercise power are subject to the right checks and balances. And this is critical in the democratic political context, where citizens need confidence that decisions made are properly taken and in their best interests.
We have seen the conflicting positions it is possible to take on this play out at a national level during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have felt that the government should simply be allowed to ‘get on with it’, unfettered by challenge which might delay decisions or lead to unhelpful second-guessing. But on the other hand, many people feel that the principle of democratic accountability means that the difficult questions should be asked (and in the moment, rather than simply after the fact), and that this will result in better and more representative decisions being made, benefiting us all.
“It is at times like these that scrutiny can seem most burdensome, not to mention a thankless task. But arguably, it is also when it matters the most”
Find the middle ground
As with so many things, the best solution might sensibly be said to be somewhere in the middle, and we have seen that play out over the last few months across the sectors we work in.
Organisations of all kinds have had to make decisions much more rapidly than they might be used to, and about high-stakes issues. This has led them to try to distil their usual decision-making processes into something which maintains accountability and scrutiny while facilitating real pace (something of a holy grail).
Governance of the future
Now, as thoughts turn to what the governance of the future might look like, local authorities could do a lot worse than look to the statutory guidance. This will help ensure their overview and scrutiny function will support the nature and pace of decision-making required – without compromising on the quality of oversight and constructive challenge. After all, there are going to be tough decisions to make for many years to come, so all the more important that these are adequately understood, tested and scrutinised.
Although it was published in 2019, we believe the key themes in the guidance hold true in the current context:
- Selection (including skills and training)
- Access to information and evidence
- Effective work planning
Our experience – including a recent detailed review of the effectiveness of a council’s overview and scrutiny function in the context of the new guidance – tells us that it is the cultural dimension which may present the greatest challenges. Addressing this properly will make for more resilient local government, able to lead effectively into the future.