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Lord Kerslake: overview and scrutiny is a strategic function

  • Comment

The government’s welcome new statutory guidance for scrutiny in local government is not solely for scrutiny committees and the officers who support them. It is as much, or more, for the attention of chief executives and leaders.

Rightly in my view, the guidance, published yesterday, focuses on culture. Without a strong and committed political and organisational culture, one which is truly open to the challenge that scrutiny brings, non-executive activity by councillors will be seen as superfluous and dispensable.

It is too easy, with the critical risks that the sector faces, to think a focus on the activity of scrutiny is a distraction from the truly complex issues of tackling our financial, demographic and other challenges. It is easy to conceive of scrutiny as a backwater, delivering little of value to the council or community other than keeping backbench councillors busy.

I know that this is not a widespread view, but we dismiss the role of vigorous and productive internal challenge at our peril. Scrutiny can, and should, provide this vigour, if supported and managed effectively by those in leadership positions. These people have to think about what they can do to change minds and mindsets on scrutiny.

More people are articulating the need for better oversight over councils’ activities. Since 2010 our sector has done an excellent job of building robust systems for doing this, led by the Local Government Association’s highly effective peer-focused activity. Calls are building for a rethink in what exists at national level to complement this local activity.

  • · The New Local Government Network’s recent report, The Community Paradigm, suggests the imminence of radical changes to the sector, which would surely have a dramatic impact on local and national governance and oversight.
  • · The Smith Institute’s recent report, Spending Fairly, Spending Well”, to which I contributed the foreword, suggests the creation of new systems at national level to oversee public spend locally and nationally.
  • · The Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy’s 2018 proposals for a financial resilience index (despite its mixed reception in the sector) point the way to a more nationally cohesive model for oversight which provides us all with more assurance on the sector’s sustainability.
  • · And at the end of the last year, the Centre for Public Scrutiny, which I chair, published work, with the local government thinktank Localis, looking at how we nationally manage failure in the sector. Locally, we have to be prepared to create and sustain the counterparts to whatever new national systems emerge in the coming months and years.

The more robust our local systems for dealing with these issues, the better and more proportionate our approach to national oversight can be. I envisage a landscape for local governance where overview and scrutiny are rightly treated as a strategic function of the council. This should provide a way for the authority to reflect on its performance and its relationship with local people and a trusted partner in the development of policy, understanding the complex needs of local people by drawing them in to focused and meaningful conversations about the services they need.

The publication of this guidance provides the best opportunity to start thinking about how we can achieve this. It is not something to pass to more junior officers to ‘implement’. It should provoke us to think about our openness and accountability to local people.

Lord Kerslake (Crossbench), chair, Centre for Public Scrutiny

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