9 August 2012
Councillor Louise Baldock (Labour) is Chair of Finance and Resources Select Committee on Liverpool City Council.
I recently spent the afternoon with housing association colleagues, where I am vice-chair of the board, visiting another, similar registered social landlord in Manchester, looking at how they ensure they offer value for money and comparing notes.
I have also had a phone call from the head teacher of the school where I am a LEA governor, discussing how my role can be better supported, and I have been in email contact with the clerk of the committee that I chair at Liverpool City Council. This was about how we can ensure that reports that come to our committee are presented with the best and most thoughtful consideration by those who deliver them.
As a consequence I found myself thinking about the nature of scrutiny.
When you are a councillor, your role as scrutineer is understood, accepted and encouraged. Local authority scrutiny committee chairs are wont to complain about members of their committees who do not ask questions. They are continually vying to secure the most engaged councillors who will demonstrate to officers, cabinet or executive members, and to the public that they are enthusiastically interrogating, understanding and, if necessary, persuading against certain courses of action.
Any good scrutineer will tell you that the real purpose of scrutiny (other than ensuring an adherence to legal practice) is mainly to seek to continually improve and enhance performance, while rooting out any activity that might have a negative impact upon key performance indicators (KPIs).
That is terminology that will leave some readers cold, I had better amplify. In any organisation, there are certain things that you need to get right and where you should achieve good results or avoid bad results. So you might, for instance, wish to achieve a certain level of satisfaction in the services you provide, or minimise the number of complaints that are reported.
These goals are generally set, such that, for example, you wish to achieve an 80 per cent satisfaction rate in the delivery of repairs (which would be a KPI), and then you set out a programme that you hope will get you to that point. Having done the things you think will best impact on the result, you then survey your customers to see how well you are doing. This finding is then reported to the scrutiny team, who will analyse the results in an effort to establish whether you are falling short or exceeding your target/KPI and consider next steps.
However, for those who are not experienced in scrutiny, it can be difficult for those who are being scrutinised to understand why someone like me is asking all these questions.
There is often a suspicion that the questions being posed suggest that something murky is afoot, or mistakes are being made. Many officers, unfamiliar with the process, will feel threatened and defensive. They think their integrity is being questioned. This may be the case with officers who are regularly scrutinised but in a lack-lustre or laissez-faire way or those who have never been scrutinised hitherto. Over the years I have become familiar with both types.
I am reminded of my time on the board of the local New Deal for Communities in my ward. I joined the board following a change of power at local level that meant it was necessary to replace a councillor of one political party with another. As a time-served scrutineer, I began at once to ask questions.
It was soon clear that while I was not entirely unique, I was certainly unusual in examining each report and the presenter thereof. Not unlike my maths classes, where I had my hand up for almost 100 per cent of each lesson, mainly because I didn't understand what I was being taught, I would sit through most board meetings indicating to speak several times on every item, getting to grips with how we were performing against our targets or in comparison with other similar organisations and trying to understand the background to reports. It didn't take long for me to realise that my constant questions were alienating officers.
I did eventually suspect that things were not all that they could be and that certain things needed to be exposed to the light, but that was in no small way due to the reluctance on the part of the organisation to engage with scrutiny.
And that brings me to the other group of people who may feel threatened by effective scrutiny if they are not familiar with it – those who are charged with scrutiny but have never had their role properly explained to them and who believe they have been doing a good job simply by reading the papers sent to them and then passing them unremarked.
Because that particular organisation was not generally engaged in effective scrutiny, the other members of the board were not happy with me either and closed ranks. It is a moot point as to whether, had they operated in an open and transparent way and allowed me to help them to improve I could have become their best advocate instead of their fiercest critic.
Any effective scrutineer will be well-versed in dealing with those who are unfamiliar with being so closely examined. Ordinarily you can draw on the experience of their colleagues and encourage them to understand your purpose. But sadly it is a much bigger task to warm up and encourage fellow committee members into vigorous questioning, particularly where they feel they are being exposed as having hitherto lacked a tenacious approach. It is the job, I believe, of the senior executive of an organisation, or the people who appoint scrutineers, to offer sufficient quality training to overcome this difficulty.
16 August 2012