Five Things Worth Knowing About Scrutiny

Over the last couple weeks we have had Andrew Jenkins with us on placement from the Politics Department in Swansea University.  We set Andrew a small task – to give his impressions of scrutiny and suggest the five things most worth knowing.  Here is what he came up with – I think it’s really rather good – thanks Andrew!

Five Things Worth Knowing About Scrutiny

For the last two weeks I have worked alongside the Swansea Overview and Scrutiny Team; observing their work, listening to their thoughts on the nature of work they do and gaining a greater understanding of this vital part of local government. Before I started at Swansea, I had no idea what Overview and Scrutiny was all about, and as I explained the work to friends and family I realised they didn’t know much either.

So, to give an ‘Idiots Guide to Scrutiny’ and to prove that I was paying attention during my time with the Swansea Team, here are five things worth knowing about scrutiny;

1) Relatively New

In the modern sense, Overview and Scrutiny is relatively new. After the passage of the Local Government Act (2000) which re-organised local government, it became a requirement that authorities following an executive model make Overview and Scrutiny arrangements. The structure of these arrangements has evolved over the last decade, and work between authorities to spread best practice is increasingly popular.

2) It Varies

Due to the flexibility in the Local Government Act, each local authority in the United Kingdom can structure Overview and Scrutiny in ways that are best suited to that authority. In Swansea there are five Overview and Scrutiny Boards (alongside two committees), while in others there are seven boards or even just one! Teams supporting these boards can vary as well, so while in Swansea there is one officer for each board, other authorities may have smaller teams with broader responsibilities.  

3) Member Driven

While the non-political members of the Scrutiny Team work very hard to develop reports, research topics, write agenda’s, arrange meetings and much more, the whole point of scrutiny is that it is driven forward by ordinary Councillors. These Councillors – drawn from across the political parties – are given this platform to raise issues and explore areas that may have gone unnoticed as well as casting a critical eye on the policy and performance of the Council’s Executive.

4) It Allows for Public Engagement

Every meeting of an Overview and Scrutiny Board is open to members of the public, and each review undertaken endeavours to engage with and consult the public. This means that anyone can get involved, either directly or indirectly through their councillor who may sit on one of the boards, and get their voice heard. Most Scrutiny teams also have platforms like this blog, or facebook and twitter presence, in order to increase public participation and open the inner workings of the Council to local residents.

5) It Makes a Difference

Finally, and probably most importantly, Overview and Scrutiny can make a real difference in the operation of local authorities. In the case of Swansea this is highlighted quite dramatically in the Children and Family Services Board which recently won a UK-wide ‘Team of the Year’ award, presented by the Centre for Public Scrutiny. Two years ago, after numerous critical reports of the state of various Council services and intervention by the then-Welsh Assembly Government, the board was set up to tackle serious problems in the provision of services to vulnerable young people. In those two years the Board has managed to make a huge difference, not just in Council policy but in a very real sense in the lives of many throughout Swansea.

While there is much more to be said for Overview and Scrutiny, I believe these five points cover the basics. It was a pleasure to work with the Scrutiny Team and I would like to thank them all for making these past two weeks both educational and enjoyable.

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