We’re not in Kansas anymore ……

Jessica Crowe is Executive Director of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, an independent charity founded in 2003 to promote better scrutiny and accountability in decision-making across the public sector.  Here’s a copy of Jessica’s blog the weekend following the conference.

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On 28 November,  I heard a local government minister say things like:

“scrutiny is the heart and soul of good governance”

“scrutiny puts the government into local government”

“everyone from the leadership to the front line understands the role and value of scrutiny … these are the necessary conditions for scrutiny to add value”

“scrutiny is the classic invest to save service”

For readers in England, no I hadn’t been spirited away over the rainbow to a mythical land of Oz. The minister concerned was Lesley Griffiths AM, Minister for Local Government and Government Business in Wales, giving the key note address at a 250-strong conference on scrutiny in Cardiff. As some of you will know, CfPS started delivering a major new programme in Wales earlier this year on behalf of the Welsh government, and we were supporting this conference as part of the programme, along with partners, the Wales Audit Office, Welsh Government, Welsh LGA and Cardiff Business School.

There were CfPS workshops on our Return on Investment model for demonstrating the impact of scrutiny reviews, an excellent closing summation from TiGilling, and I was chairing the conference overall. With a wide range of workshops, including one from the always engaging Catherine Howe of Public-i, and a spell-binding presentation from Peter Watkin Jones, solicitor to the Francis Inquiry, there was plenty on the agenda to justify so many delegates taking a whole day out to come.

What I found particularly encouraging was the palpable sense of energy and determination in the room. Despite notable Welsh scrutiny successes such as Cardiff’s review of the night time economy, and reviews described on the day such as Wrexham’s review of markets and Swansea’s review of support for care leavers, a number of councils in Wales have struggled to raise scrutiny’s game. However, I would say that the conference last week was a watershed moment in building a new consensus that poor or average standards of scrutiny should no longer be tolerated in Wales.  This was a (large) room full of people who were up for change and positive about ensuring member scrutiny is in a fit state to help public services across Wales to address the challenges they will face over the coming years.

We heard a delegate from Anglesey / Ynys Mon saying that he had been “inspired” to go back and rethink how they do things and a great challenge from another councillor about how to develop a strong brand for scrutiny in Wales, and saw a rush on the CfPS stall over lunch, with copies of Tipping the Scales – our guide to the Return on Investment through scrutiny model – flying off the table. It wasn’t all cosy or self-congratulatory either. I heard from an opposition councillor who was apparently the only scrutiny member present from his authority and who told me how scrutiny was struggling to break out of majority group control, and from members who would have liked more recognition of the steps taken (with CfPS support) to improve scrutiny in the National Parks Authorities in Wales.

But overall, I was left with a really strong impression of the emergence of what the Minister called a “visionary and dedicated scrutiny community” in Wales. So what lies behind this ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ vision? I think there are several drivers:

  • Genuine political commitment and interest from the Minister for Local Government, who has made a point of visiting Welsh councils and talking directly to elected councillors – and who has backed up this interest with real investment for improvement – the CfPS programme but also the Scrutiny Development Fund which is funding scrutiny innovations across Wales;
  • A renewed interest in the potential of scrutiny to support service improvement and stronger accountability from regulators such as the Welsh Audit Office, whose major study of scrutiny across Wales, based on a learning through peer review methodology, will be launched shortly;
  • A recognition that public services in Wales need to reform and adapt to the challenge of austerity and changing social demands and expectations, and an acknowledgement that an inclusive democratic scrutiny process can help build support and acceptance of the need for change – by involving citizens and service-users in developing solutions alongside decision-makers.

It’s early days, and forthcoming steps such as the development of a set of agreed ‘Characteristics of Effective Scrutiny” for regulators and politicians, which CfPS has been supporting the Welsh Scrutiny Officer Network to develop off the back of the WAO study, will help take things on to the next phase. The biggest message which I sought to leave the conference with was the need for Welsh scrutineers to drive greater consistency and to raise all scrutiny practice to the standards of the best. With the challenges public services and communities are facing, average or inconsistent scrutiny will not be enough: we need colleagues to challenge poor practice, to be self-critical and to learn from others’ experience of what works.

Come to think of it, that’s a good message for scrutineers across England (and elsewhere) too. And you don’t need to wear ruby slippers or click your heels together – you can follow the debates from the conference on Twitter using hashtag #scrutiny13, (with the highlights handily collected together on Storify), read the WAO Good Practice blog for a range of contributors’ thoughts, watch videos of interviews with some of the speakers on Vimeo, and find out more generally on the WAO website.

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