At the budget scrutiny, a task and finish group approach is adopted. Each portfolio is scrutinised by a small group of members over a dedicated period, providing opportunity for focused challenge and questioning. Executive members provide a thumbnail of the challenges and risks in their portfolio. Scrutiny evidence-gathering groups, composed of members and co-optees, agree key lines of enquiry and, following the Q&A, formulate their recommendations. The OSC then ratifies the recommendations. Task and finish groups means that scrutiny takes a whole council approach, ensuring robust decision-making (especially in a context of budgetary constraints) and enabling greater member participation.
Cllr David Andrews (Cons), Chairman of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OCS)
“From humble beginnings a decade ago, initially with limited space and resource that meant we could not share our work more widely, we have constantly sought to extract value from the Budget (Integrated Plan) Scrutiny process to the point where it is now an all-council affair, all back benchers are able to contribute and do so in a cross party, non-partisan environment.
The executive members, and senior officers tell us they value the opportunity and the outputs that arise. The time restraints mean that the process is very intensive and focused, but over the years a process has been honed and largely perfected. There is always room for refinement.
As important as the budget scrutiny is to us, we have not lost sight of the important role we play in working with stakeholders to pursue the ‘public pound’ in Hertfordshire through our regular ‘topic groups’, that take deep dives into matters that the Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OCS) has established are worthy of investigation. Topic groups are often developed as a result of information arising from less resource intensive bulletins and webinars, though the work programme is entirely in the hands of the OSC.
With the onset of webcasting, we are extremely pleased to be able now to also share our work with residents and stakeholders more widely.”
- To scrutinise a local authority budget, take a whole council approach, and combine agile, hybrid working with rigour.
- To communicate complex and voluminous financial information to members and co-optees from diverse life experiences and backgrounds within tight timeframes.
This portfolio-focused approach has been adopted and developed by Hertfordshire since 2010. The COVID-19 context necessitated a move to use of technology and informed the current iteration.
After the results of resident engagement concerning the budget (the Integrated Plan) are circulated, an officer-led webinar informs all council members and co-optees about the contents of the annual budget. A task and finish group per portfolio allows virtual attendance whilst facilitating the deep dive associated with effective scrutiny and which is essential when scrutinising a local authority’s budget.
Attendance at the evidence-gathering group sessions is done via MS Teams. This guarantees maximum attendance by evidence gathering group participants, many of whom are also district and borough councillors in addition to their other professional and personal commitments.
As is often the case, scrutiny’s success cannot always be tangibly measured. The continuing financial health of a local authority in turbulent financial times can however be evidence of the success of the process.
How is the new approach being sustained?
The budget scrutiny approach is being sustained through developing a cycle of preparatory sessions ahead of the next budget, using and supporting graduate-scheme employees to assist each evidence gathering group, training for members, soliciting feedback widely from all participants to improve the process and draw out learning, and maintaining dialogue at all levels across the council.
The pandemic lead to using technology in innovative ways, which has facilitated additional benefits. Consistency of approach helps to embed the process. Cross-party member involvement in budget scrutiny is essential for the functional health of an organisation like a local authority.
Scrutiny Officers: Natalie Rotherham and Joana Greenshaw
Members: Councillor David Andrews
Cllr Sandy Walkington (LibDem), Vice Chairman of the OSC
“The challenge is to break down the budget process into bite-size chunks, involve as many of the elected members as possible so they feel ownership of the process, and still try to see the wood for the trees. It is a learning process, I think we improve it with each iteration, it’s not about spectacular results but rather the mundane act of keeping the administration legal, decent, honest and truthful.”