Effectiveness of local authority overview and scrutiny committees Contents


Reducing council budgets

48.Local government has experienced significant reductions in funding in recent years, leading many authorities to choose to reduce their scrutiny budgets. Whilst understandable in the context of wider reductions, it is regrettable that the resources allocated to scrutiny have decreased so much. The Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) explains that:

There are now significantly fewer “dedicated” scrutiny officers employed by English councils. In 2015 this dropped below one full time equivalent officer post providing policy support to scrutiny per council. In many councils, there might be only 0.2 or 0.3 FTE to carry out this role–or nothing at all. (We would describe a “dedicated” scrutiny officer as one whose sole duties involve providing policy advice to scrutiny councillors.)51

49.Cllr John Cotton from Birmingham City Council also described a significant reduction in resources in recent years:

if I look at staffing for scrutiny in Birmingham, if we go back to 2010–11, we had 19.4 full-time equivalent staff. We are now working with 8.2, so there has clearly been a substantial reduction and we have seen a similar reduction in the number of committees and so forth … it does come back to this issue that, if you value something, you have to invest in it.52

50.Birmingham City Council explain that this reduction in resources has matched a reduction in the amount of scrutiny carried out:

Birmingham has had five standing O&S Committees for the last two years, whereas there were on average ten committees in the ten years prior to that. Whilst this is line with the reduction in council budgets overall, it should be noted that the main impacts are the negative effect on the breadth and depth of work that can be covered by each committee, plus the reduced capacity to research, reach out to external partners and to residents and service users–and so to “act as a voice for local service users”.53

Officer support models and required skill sets

51.The CfPS also note that increasingly the officers providing day to day support to scrutiny committees are those whose role is combined with wider democratic services functions or with a corporate policy or strategy role.54 Whilst those working in combined roles are able to provide effective support to scrutiny, there is a significant risk that non-scrutiny functions can take precedence. For example, democratic services officers supporting scrutiny must balance effective guidance, research and advice with the immediate time pressures and statutory deadlines of agenda publication and meeting administration. In such roles there is a risk that scrutiny is relegated to an ‘add-on’ that is only done once all other tasks are complete. Several officers attending our workshop expressed this view, with one officer explaining that she worked full time but her time was split with a wider corporate policy role and she estimated that no more than a quarter of her time was spent working on scrutiny matters. The ability of council officers to effectively support scrutiny can often depend entirely upon the personalities and enthusiasm of those officers. For example, when we asked Cllr Mary Evans from Suffolk County Council whether she felt that she had sufficient officer support, she told us: “I would say, “Yes, but”. Yes, we are adequately resourced, but it depends upon the fact that we have two extremely dedicated and experienced scrutiny officers who are working at full stretch.”55

52.We heard evidence that the skill sets of officers is just as important as the number of officers allocated to support scrutiny. Professor Copus for example told us that when considering whether an authority’s scrutiny function is effective, he asks:

Is the scrutiny function well supported by officers and by the right sort of officers? I used to be a committee clerk, so I am not decrying that grand profession, but scrutiny committees need access to policy officers; they need access to people who can manipulate statistics, for example. They need the right sort of support.56

53.Jacqui McKinlay also highlighted that certain skills are needed to effectively support scrutiny. She told us that:

We used to say a dedicated scrutiny officer [was the optimum approach, but] … As long as they have the passion, dedication and commitment to the principle of scrutiny and the specialist skills to do it, I would say we should leave councils to configure how that happens. We do need to acknowledge that we do now have the internet, and the days of research and how that happens have changed. However, it is wrong to presume that councillors themselves will have the time and the capacity to do the level of research that is sometimes needed to do good scrutiny on complex issues. Fundamentally, it needs the bedrock of good scrutiny skills within the team to do that.57

54.From speaking with officers and councillors at our workshop, it is apparent that there are many officers working in scrutiny that have these skills, and some are able to combine them with the different skill set required to be efficient and accurate committee clerks. However, we heard too many examples of officers working on scrutiny who did not possess the necessary skills. One councillor told us that in her authority scrutiny officers had become little more than diary clerks, with reports and data now coming from the service departments across the council, which were invariably overly optimistic about performance and unchallenging of the status quo.

Scrutiny’s profile and parity with the executive

55.Whilst we regret that the level of resources allocated to scrutiny has diminished, we believe that the bigger issue relates to our earlier conclusions on organisational culture. In this respect, we agree with Cllr Sean Fitzsimons from Croydon Council who told us:

Yes, it clearly does make a difference where the level of resource is, but it is too easy to put the blame on scrutiny not being at its best because we do not have the right officer or the right amount of resource in place. To me, it is clear that it is the power relationship between scrutiny, the executive and the officers. That really is the focus of where strengths and weaknesses are. You could have a very well-resourced scrutiny with officers who know their subject, but if you cannot get the chief executive or the executive director of a department to feel that you have a legitimate role, you can bang your head against the wall for as long as you like. For me, resources would come if we had that power balance right, rather than starting to look at resources first.58

56.We are concerned that in many councils, there is no parity of esteem between scrutiny and the executive. Resources and status are disproportionately focussed around Leaders and Cabinet Members, with scrutiny too often treated as an afterthought. Professor Copus told us that:

in many councils, scrutiny lacks a parity of esteem with the executive. As a consequence, resources and focus are placed on the executive. For example, chief executives will find the time and have little problem in working directly with a council leader or with the cabinet. Expecting a chief executive then to work with the scrutiny process is always somewhat problematic. As soon as you differentiate between scrutiny and the executive with its officer base and its officer support, you start to chip away at the esteem that scrutiny has. One way around that, without expecting chief executives to work with every scrutiny committee, is to make sure that the scrutiny function has the resources to be able to produce evidence-based policy suggestions that the executive want to take on board, because they recognise scrutiny has done something they have not, which is spend three or four months looking at a particular issue in detail; cabinets cannot do that.59

57.As well as the disproportionate allocation of resources, we are also concerned that the uneven relationship between executives and scrutiny committees means that those officers supporting scrutiny can find themselves conflicted. Scrutiny officers can find themselves in the position of having to balance corporate or administration priorities with the challenge role of scrutiny, conscious that those they are scrutinising can make decisions regarding future resourcing and their personal employment prospects. Advice from officers must be impartial and free from executive influence. Cllr Fitzsimons told us that:

You have to trust your officers and you also have to understand that they will have careers outside scrutiny … We need to make certain that they do not become part of the rock-throwing contingent, and that they are not seen as part of the group of officers supporting councillors who are making life difficult. I believe officers can be impartial, but they need to network and to network strongly within the council. If you really want to know what is going on in a department, you need an officer advising you in scrutiny who has those contacts within that highways department, as well as being good with the figures and being able to produce a report. You need impartiality, but you also need great networking skills.60

58.We believe that if a local authority does not adequately resource the scrutiny function, such impartiality is harder to ensure. With officers supporting both the executive and scrutiny, there is a significant risk that real or perceived conflicts of interests can occur. For example, an officer from a London Borough explained that in her authority following reductions in scrutiny support, designated senior officers from service departments act as ‘scrutiny champions’:

The scrutiny champion’s role includes supporting the committee with finalising its work programme for the municipal year, and includes directing departmental officers to produce the scoping report for the area the Committee will undertake an ‘in-depth’ scrutiny review on in that year. As the same officers provide direct support to the executive, one can immediately see the defect in this model–officers supporting the scrutiny function are not independent of, and separate from, those being scrutinised.61

Allocating resources

59.Councils are under extreme budgetary pressures, but we are concerned that decisions regarding the resourcing of overview and scrutiny can be politically motivated. Professor Copus told us that:

In some councils, councillors have said to me, “It is a deliberate ploy that we under-resource scrutiny so that it cannot do anything and it cannot challenge the executive. It has very little role to play.” Because of the financial constraint, supporting scrutiny is a soft and obvious target for reductions. It is a false economy, because good, effective scrutiny can save councils money, and indeed save other organisations money as well.62

60.When we asked the Minister about resourcing scrutiny committees, he told us:

What we have to consider here is that we have not got a scrutiny function that is in the pockets of the executive and the senior management team. We need a scrutiny function where those senior officers have a relationship with the scrutiny function and the people conducting the scrutiny get to see how the executive works and understand the executive, but that does not take away the fact that we need to make sure that scrutiny committees are properly resourced. That is not necessarily, in certain places, about having a dedicated officer; it is more about having access to the information, support and, at times, research, to make sure that they do a good job of scrutinising the executive.63

61.We acknowledge that scrutiny resources have diminished in light of wider local authority reductions. However, it is imperative that scrutiny committees have access to independent and impartial policy advice that is as free from executive influence as possible. We are concerned that in too many councils, supporting the executive is the over-riding priority, with little regard for the scrutiny function. This is despite the fact that at a time of limited resources, scrutiny’s role is more important than ever.

62.We therefore call on the Government to place a strong priority in revised and reissued guidance to local authorities that scrutiny committees must be supported by officers that can operate with independence and provide impartial advice to scrutiny councillors. There should be a greater parity of esteem between scrutiny and the executive, and committees should have the same access to the expertise and time of senior officers and the chief executive as their cabinet counterparts. Councils should be required to publish a summary of resources allocated to scrutiny, using expenditure on executive support as a comparator. We also call on councils to consider carefully their resourcing of scrutiny committees and to satisfy themselves that they are sufficiently supported by people with the right skills and experience.

The role of the Statutory Scrutiny Officer

63.The Localism Act 2011 created a requirement for all upper tier authorities to create a statutory role of designated scrutiny officer to promote scrutiny across the organisation. The Act does not require that the officer be of a certain seniority, or be someone that works primarily supporting scrutiny. The Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) at the University of Birmingham explains that:

The intention was to champion and embrace the role of scrutiny. In reality, in most councils, the designated post-holder, while willing, is a shadow of the other posts required by legislation–the Head of Paid Service, Section 151 Officer, and Monitoring Officer. It is seldom an officer with a level of seniority sufficient to ensure that scrutiny is taken seriously when the Executive (both cabinet members and senior council staff) seek to close ranks.64

64.We believe that the role of a statutory ‘champion’ of scrutiny is extremely important in helping to create a positive organisational culture for an authority. However, we are concerned that the creation of this role has resulted in too many instances of Statutory Scrutiny Officers fulfilling the role in name only, with little actual activity. At our workshop, councillors described to us how Statutory Scrutiny Officers were often ‘too low down the food chain’, while officers told us of the need for a higher profile for the role, arguing that officers from across the council should know who their Statutory Scrutiny Officer is in the same way they do for monitoring officers. We agree with INLOGOV that the creation of the post has “proved largely ineffective”65 and believe that reform is needed in order to achieve the aspirations of the Localism Act 2011. The Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) argue that the profile of the Statutory Scrutiny Officer role should be on a par with the Statutory Monitoring Officer66 and the County and Unitary Councils’ Officer Overview and Scrutiny Network argue that the requirement for a Statutory Scrutiny Officer should be extended to all councils.67 We note the positive example of Stevenage Borough Council choosing to fund a scrutiny officer despite not being covered by the provisions of the Act:

Some years ago this authority created a post of Scrutiny Officer and this has greatly helped with the running of an effective scrutiny function. We have prioritised this over other funding options. It is increasingly difficult to do so as this is not a statutory function at a District level, and the further funding cuts we face over the next three years place extreme pressure on existing budgets.68

65.We recommend that the Government extend the requirement of a Statutory Scrutiny Officer to all councils and specify that the post-holder should have a seniority and profile of equivalence to the council’s corporate management team. To give greater prominence to the role, Statutory Scrutiny Officers should also be required to make regular reports to Full Council on the state of scrutiny, explicitly identifying any areas of weakness that require improvement and the work carried out by the Statutory Scrutiny Officer to rectify them.

51 Centre for Public Scrutiny (OSG098) para 100

52 Q46

53 Birmingham City Council (OSG087) page 6

54 Centre for Public Scrutiny (OSG098) paras 101–105

55 Q45

56 Q4

57 Q23

58 Q45

59 Q15

60 Q53

61 An officer from a London Borough (OSG091) para 3

62 Q22

63 Q114

64 The Institute of Local Government Studies, The University of Birmingham (OSG053) page 6

65 The Institute of Local Government Studies, The University of Birmingham (OSG053), page 1

66 Association of Democratic Services Officers (OSG123) page 7

67 Council and Unitary Councils’ Officer Overview and Scrutiny Network (OSG114) para 8.1

68 Stevenage Borough Council (OSG060) page 1

14 December 2017