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Local authorities harbour real doubts over value of scrutiny committees

Source: PSE - April/ May 15

Paul Hughes, director and public sector governance lead at Grant Thornton UK LLP, outlines the findings of recent research.

Local government in the UK can and should be proud of the way it has withstood the challenge of austerity to date. It has shown a commendable capacity to innovate in the face of increased financial pressures and is increasingly open to new models for delivering services. Governance needs to keep pace with these changes, ensuring that authorities’ goals are achieved and values maintained, regardless of how services are delivered. 

How can this best be done? The challenges are many, but we think that scrutiny, with its remit to look beyond day-to-day business to question the purpose and value of activities, needs to play its full part here. However, the evidence from our latest local government governance review – ‘All aboard?’ – is that scrutiny needs to up its game or this potentially valuable resource for local democracy could be lost. 

For the review we conducted a national survey, which received responses from more than 100 senior local authority leaders on key current governance issues in these three areas. We also carried out detailed research into how these aspects of governance are working at the 140 local government bodies we audit. 

The research found that while 90% felt their organisations encouraged well-managed risk-taking and innovation, nearly half (43%) of respondents felt scrutiny committees were not challenging enough about the way councils operate. It also revealed a wide variation in the practice of scrutiny. 

Though 15 years have passed since the introduction of scrutiny committees, it is clear that the system has been a mixed success. Nearly one in five of those surveyed said that their authority had returned, or was considering returning, to the traditional committee structure. This could turn out to be a backwards step for effective scrutiny. 

Scrutiny committees can offer a valuable ‘check’ to the executive. Potentially, they can also offer a fresh perspective by taking both a long-term view of strategic issues and ‘deep dives’ into vital areas of council operations. We know that some councils are doing this with great success, so it’s important that those who are struggling receive support to improve their processes – so that they are not tempted to fall back into outdated methods of scrutiny. 

The importance of alternative delivery models (ADMs) to local authorities as an avenue for both cost savings and innovation is ever more apparent. The great majority of our survey saw their organisation as being open to all available options for how services are delivered. A large majority also confirmed that their organisation has entered into ADMs or is considering doing so. 

Over half of respondents did not consider that the changing relationships with police bodies following the election of police and crime commissioners had had a positive impact on local partnership working, although this perception was not shared by respondents from police bodies. Clearly this needs to be an area of focus for the sector going forward. 

Similarly, the new duty to promote the health of their populations enforced by the Health and Social Care Act 2012 has not, on the evidence of this survey, yet had a significant impact for many authorities. Over 40% claim to see no real difference in how healthcare was being governed and delivered. However, 12% agreed strongly that it has made a difference – a potentially encouraging sign at this relatively early stage in the Act’s implementation. 

In terms of engaging with the public, we were surprised to find that over a third of those questioned did not think their organisation actively involves service users in designing the future scope and delivery of its services. In our view this is both a missed opportunity and an increasingly untenable position for any local public sector body. 

Annual accounts remain largely impenetrable to the general public – an issue which also raises questions of accountability and transparency. Most of our respondents did not think external readers could understand their accounts, not helped by the average length of the accounts increasing by 4%, while annual governance statements  grew even further, by 18% on average. 

For local government, the task of maintaining good governance is becoming ever more complex. Today, local authorities have to secure their core objectives and values through many other agencies. This implies a greater role for scrutiny and a need to make sure local public sector bodies’ arrangements are as transparent as possible to stakeholders. Now more than ever, local authorities need to ensure that their associates – members, partners and stakeholders – are all on board with their governance.



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