All along the watchtower – #Scrutiny13


Guest blog from Stu Hodges, Communications Officer, Welsh Local Government Association

Stu Hodges                           imagesCA1CH1I0

 “prepare the shield…set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth” -Isaiah: 21

Written by Dylan but popularised by Hendrix, ‘all along the watchtower’ blends this biblical reference from Isaiah within a song that both laments the confused nature of things, while also offering a firm resolve to seek out new roles and ideas.

We may have found our anthem.  The changing world that the scrutiny process operates within is confusing and, while it may not be biblical in proportion, the act of bringing together over 270 scrutineers at a conference on 28 November does mark a significant step in challenging this confusion and defining what role the scrutiny process should play in Wales.

A far more experienced and well-versed local government scrutineer has already outlined on this blog how scrutiny finds itself at a crossroads, and how it must shake off the identity crises of its ‘teenage years’ and define for itself a new maturity and clarity of purpose – perhaps one based on innovation, regulation and public engagement.

As a collaborative effort between the WLGA, Wales Audit OfficeCentre for Public ScrutinyWelsh Government and Cardiff Business School, the ‘Scrutiny in the spotlight’ conference will support this ‘rite of passage’ by exploring what the scrutiny function will need to look like if it is to meet the future demands of a dramatically changing public sector environment.

The event demonstrates the commitment that exists to ‘shine a light’ on scrutiny, and to evolve the scrutiny process so that it can play a leading role within a Welsh public sector that will need to manage significant structural change while developing new models of public service delivery.  All scrutineers share a common purpose, and the event will offer delegates a unique opportunity to pool collective knowledge and forge new ideas for improving the scrutiny process in Wales.

The need for reinvention is clear.  Scrutiny, now more than ever, needs to ‘come of age’, and it will have to do so at a time when local government is facing the most challenging period in its history.  A painful new financial reality has arrived, and it has done so with some force.  Demographic and wider societal trends mean demand for public services is on the rise, and there is widespread acknowledgement that things must change.   Yet I suspect that the scale and shape of the reinvention that is required will only really be known when the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery reports later this year.

It’s all about the timing.

An active questioning of the role and scope of the scrutiny process has already featured strongly in the discussions between local government leaders and Sir Paul Williams during the Commission’s evidence gathering sessions, and no doubt the growing impetus to reconfigure public service delivery will continue to raise a number of searching questions for both local accountability and local democracy in Wales.

By bringing together the right people, at the right time, the ‘Scrutiny in the spotlight’ conference will begin the crucial process of setting the “watchman”, and offers a timely opportunity to identify how scrutiny must adapt, evolve and reinvent itself to meet the significant challenges, and also the many opportunities that will exist in a dynamically changing Wales.

Anyone involved in the scrutiny process will know how crucial such timing is. The demands expected to be placed on local councils during the next period are significant, and will require an increasingly responsive scrutiny process that can operate in ‘real time’ and at the ‘front-end’ of the decision making process.  This in turn will increase the demands and expectations that are placed on our scrutineers.

While radical change will often require innovative responses, by definition, innovation stands as no guarantor of future success.  Scrutiny programmes and agendas will need to become increasingly focussed and prioritised, and the scrutiny process will have to offer early and targeted intervention if it is to help steer local councils through the difficult decisions that lie ahead.

Changing public sector structures will need to be matched with robust governance.  Changing forms of service delivery will need to demonstrate not only cost saving efficiency but be shaped by public expectation and need.  In a rapidly changing and open communications environment, every member of the public is now the “watchman” and has quite rightly joined the ranks of the scrutineers.  Rooting the reinvention of the scrutiny process upon innovation, regulation and public engagement suddenly seems a ‘none-too-shabby’ suggestion on where to start.

Ultimately, the question that needs to be answered during this revisioning process is one of how to meld the aggregates of scrutiny, regulation and good old fashioned public opinion into a systemised and collaborative approach.  This approach must “prepare” and position the scrutiny process as a “shield”, one that is wielded to protect the quality and diversity of local public services which are so vital to communities in Wales.

Cue the music.

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