Sorry, You Do What?

Somehow I’ve always managed to work in areas that needed to be explained.  I’ve been in Tenant Participation, Anti Poverty, Community Leadership & Engagement and now Overview & Scrutiny.  I’m slightly jealous of those people who work in Planning, Education or Social Services who don’t get a blank expression when they tell someone what they do.

Apart from making my life slightly more complicated, this low level of awareness is a real problem for those of us working in overview and scrutiny – particularly because we think it can make a real difference and add something important to local democracy.

But what exactly is it?

Put most simply, overview and scrutiny is cross party committees of councillors who work to improve services and who hold the Council’s Cabinet to account.   You can see our extended definition here which includes the idea that Council Overview & Scrutiny Committees are a  bit like Parliamentary Select Committees – personally I think this is quite a good way to explain it.

The concept of scrutiny is probably one that most people get.  You can find a good definition of public scrutiny over at the Centre for Public Scrutiny – an independent organisation who support scrutineers at all levels of government.  ‘Overview’ is a little less clear.  For us it means helping to develop new policies although others take it to mean ‘oversight’ – in other words looking at the big picture rather than only focusing on specific issues. 

Different councils will also have different takes on what Overview & Scrutiny is about.  So, for example, it might be seen as:

  • ‘Critical Friend’– maintaining a conversation with Cabinet members, challenging them to justify decisions and offering constructive suggestions about how services might be improved.  O&S has the power to call cabinet members to answer questions, look at cabinet decisions before they are made and ‘call in’ decisions after they are made.
  • A ‘Think Tank’– involving councillors in improving services and developing polciies through consultation and research, publishing findings, conclusions and recommendations in major stand alone reports
  • A ‘Watchdog’– Keeping an eye on the performance of services, picking up on complaints and raising concerns.  Talking to council officers about how problems are being dealt with and how they might be tackled
  • A ‘Public Hearing’– Involving the public in the work of the council, raising public issues of concern and conducting meetings in public.  Representing the views of the public to decision makers through consultation and research.
  • All / any of the above

Whether you see these differences as weakness or a strength, the important point for us is that these are all very real ways of making a difference through improved services, policies and decision making.

Hope that’s all clear now!


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