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Jacqui McKinlay: Grenfell raises many governance questions

Jacqui McKinlay
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The investigation into Grenfell cuts to the heart of what the Centre for Public Scrutiny is about: improving lives through better governance and scrutiny.

Seeing a tragedy where voices may have been ignored and accountability lost is heart-breaking.

Our principles are accountability, transparency and involvement, which help steer decision-makers and overview bodies to operate in a way that people can understand and makes them feel heard. Understanding how this works in the messy reality of complex systems is our area of expertise.

In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell fire, many governance questions were raised regarding operational governance (who approved what) and oversight of decisions (scrutiny). It is not yet the time or place review the specifics. It is, however, important to consider the immediate issues.

In relation to operational governance, the prevailing issue is accountability and how it gets diffused in a system with lots of chains and bodies. In English, this means that everyone thinks that somebody else is ultimately responsibility and will check.

The governance solution isn’t a single ‘strongman/woman’ in charge who is all over everything. It is about involvement, where everyone recognises their role is to hold everyone else to account. It is about changing how we think, so that awkward questions from unlikely sources become evidence of problems that may need to be urgently addressed, rather than distractions to be batted away. This is what public involvement looks like.

On the role of scrutiny, whilst they do not make decisions (in the cabinet structure), they are responsible for scrutinising the work of the council’s cabinet and have a duty to investigate any issue that affects “the area or the area’s inhabitants” (this phrase is from the Localism Act 2011).

The immediate consideration is the transparency of information. In the aftermath of the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal, we produced a guide for scrutineers called Hiding in Plain Sight. This seeks to highlight the risks attached to relying on a single source of information to support local scrutiny. In Rotherham and in other councils, formal reports from council officers (and others) can often reassure councillors into thinking that problems do not exist. But other people, in particular local residents, may have different perspectives.

Another factor is whether the resource is available to do this oversight well. Are we asking too much? We currently think that the odds are stacked against scrutiny committees.

If we want to use governance to improve lives we need address these issues. Governance is about more than compliance; Grenfell has shown that. It is about the opportunity for us to face up to our collective responsibility to work better together. It is about listening and learning, and addressing the imbalance of power between decision-makers and local people.

Jacqui McKinlay, chief executive, Centre for Public Scrutiny

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