“What are you really saying?” – Achieving effective overview and scrutiny through active listening

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The ability to freely question decision makers is a powerful expression of democracy. In many ways the act of questioning those in authority can be said to define and represent overview and scrutiny’s challenge role, especially when played out in the public arena.

For many overview and scrutiny committees, however, the aim of questioning is not just challenge for its own sake but as a means to drive improvement in public services and ensure decision making is accountable, inclusive and robust.

Despite a heavy emphasis on the use of questions in scrutiny, I’m not always convinced that sufficient attention is placed on the process of answering. After all, it is a question of give and take and it’s important to strike the right balance. As Mark Twain said, “If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.”

Whether in a formal accountability capacity or as part of task and finish group inquiry, for me the space between question and answer represents an important frontier zone in which relationships are cultivated and crafted. It’s a form of social exchange which if not managed sensitively can crystallise attitudes into ‘us versus them’. This can prove a real barrier to making best use of elected members’ community leadership role in shaping the future delivery of public services.

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Being called to account by scrutiny or giving evidence as a witness has the potential to generate a range of unsettling feelings for those under the spotlight. Since the ability to obtain and analyse evidence is fundamental in helping committees reach informed recommendations, it makes sense that it should be experienced by those contributing to it as rounded and objective. This is crucial to scrutiny’s credibility and effectiveness; people who feel they haven’t been given a ‘fair hearing’ are more likely to be dismissive and disengaged.

Earlier this year CfPS linked with the Samaritan’s workplace training team to explore how the organisation’s unique approach to listening can inform more reflective forms of communication which can ultimately lead to the development of more responsive local services.

The Samaritans offers a range of confidential services to people who are feeling suicidal or experiencing emotional distress. Listening volunteers talk to anyone who calls, emails or visits a Samaritans branch and are specially trained in the use of the ‘listening wheel’ in providing individuals with support.

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Volunteers listen with focus, using techniques such as clarification, summary and careful use of open questions. The aim is to provide contacts with a safe, non-judgmental environment in which people can explore how they feel.

Active listening allows Samaritan volunteers to suspend their own frame of reference in processing information provided to them by contacts, helping them empathise and better see things from another’s point of view.

By supporting people with their feelings Samaritans are able to get through to the facts. The relatively simple process of talking and being really listened to alleviates distress and helps people reach a better understanding of their situation and the options open to them.

For more information about the Samaritans, please visit their website www.samaritans.org

The insight offered by the Samaritans’ communication methods provides a way to augment the support element of overview and scrutiny’s ‘critical friendship’ role. Active listening lets those practicing scrutiny develop a more accurate understanding of the speaker’s message, leading to the formation of more balanced and productive relationships.

The following five points demonstrate how listening with greater focus can be used to achieve more effective overview and scrutiny:

  1. Active listening demonstrates respect and shows that scrutiny practitioners genuinely want to understand people’s viewpoints even when different to their own.
  2.  It facilitates further disclosure by not judging who is speaking. Disclosure is important in achieving deeper understanding of issues of interest to scrutiny by acknowledging the complexity of real life situations.
  3. Active listening enables contributors to reflect back, allowing them to provide correction in the event practitioners have misunderstood information presented to them. It can be an important means to ensure accuracy and improve the robustness of evidence gathering.
  4. Being attentive helps practitioners stay focused on the conversation and to remember what they hear. It can help overcome situations where councillors are perceived as being more interested in ‘queuing to speak’ than in paying attention to what is being said. It can also avoid unhelpful duplication of questioning.
  5. Active listening can defuse conflict. Fully attending to a speaker can help create an atmosphere of co-operation from which can emerge innovative, co-produced solutions which are more likely to be implemented.

As overview and scrutiny in Wales develops in an environment of austerity, active listening provides a constructive means for it to make a more valuable contribution in the design and delivery of local services. By inviting, authorising and legitimising the public’s views and experiences within decision making, we can achieve better accountability through listening and ultimately improve outcomes for the people of Wales.

The team at CfPS are really looking forward to the joint conference on 28th November. We are delighted to be able to support the event as part of our Welsh Government funded programme and to contribute our collective experience in demonstrating the return on investment in overview and scrutiny.

Rebecca David-Knight, Wales Scrutiny Programme Manager, Centre for Public Scrutiny  

1 thought on ““What are you really saying?” – Achieving effective overview and scrutiny through active listening

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