New Ways of Making a Difference

Over the last 12 months one cross party group of councillors has been showing how overview & scrutiny really can make a difference. 

The Child & Family Services Overview & Scrutiny Board was set up in April 2009 following a CSSIW Report into children’s services in Swansea. It has been chaired by Cllr Mark Child with support from the vice chair Cllr Paxton Hood-Williams.  In the 12 months since being set up, this group of councillors has not only been working hard to help support improvements to care services for vulnerable children but have also been reinventing the way that overview & scrutiny is done in Swansea. 

When the CSSIW came back and did a further inspection in Swansea earlier this year, they were full of praise for work that the Board had been doing.  They said that the overview & scrutiny arrangements were able to ‘effectively challenge and hold to account children’s social services’ and that they did this by working constructively with the Cabinet Member for Social Services.  About the Board they said:

Observation of a recent Board meeting by the leader of the review team evidenced their individual and collective skill, commitment and enthusiasm in holding senior social services managers to account.

This commitment has been reflected by the fact that in their first 12 months they met 16 times as a board and held 40 informal ‘task and finish’ group meetings to get the work done.

Their new ways of working have been so effective that a recent council meeting agreed that all overview and scrutiny in Swansea should work in this way, and so, from June onwards, it will.

So what exactly have they been doing differently?

Critical friend role– The Board agreed that their main aim would be to provide ‘critical friend challenge’ to the Cabinet Member and to this end they have been talking to the Cabinet Member on a regular basis and involving them in meetings much more than had been the case before.  To help this process, the Board have been producing a ‘Chair’s Letter’ at the end of most meetings.  This idea (borrowed from Cardiff  Scrutiny) is a way of picking up any concerns or proposals from a meeting and sending them direct to the Cabinet Member who will then reply in writing to the Board.   

Questioning Strategies– The Board have a adopted a much more robust approach to questioning than was previously the case.   Possible questions are discussed by email prior to the meeting and then firmed up at a pre meeting before the formal questioning takes place.  At the end of every meeting the Board reflect on what they learnt, how the questioning went and then they will also talk about who is coming to the next meeting and what general topics they will want to look at – and so the whole process will start again.

Performance Monitoring – In the past work plans have tended to be set at the beginning of the the year and included a list of topics that the boards have tried to work their way through during the year.  The Child & Family Services Board have spent much more time looking at the performance reports for the service and planned their work around areas of concern that they picked up.  This has meant a much more flexible approach.  This has also meant getting much more involved in saying how they want performance reports to look and what issues they want them to focus on.

At the end of last year the Board spent a little time reflecting on what had worked well and the results of that evaluation can be seen in this presentation:

The Child & Family Services Overview & Scrutiny Board will continue to work in the same way over the next 12 months and perhaps beyond.  No doubt they will also continue to refine and develop their overview & scrutiny activities as they go.  Ultimately, of course, it is the difference that they make to vulnerable children that will be their test of success.


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