We caught up with Hazel Ilett, Scrutiny Manager, Monmouthshire CC and Jonathan Jones, Scrutiny Manager Caerphilly CBC following the Spotlight on Scrutiny conference, and they shared their thoughts on Collaborative Scrutiny.
Collaborative scrutiny is complex… and collaborative scrutiny of a highly controversial subject matter – treatment of municipal waste – is even more complex….little did we know just how complex joint scrutiny could become! We are now told our project is the most significant joint scrutiny project conducted in Wales (and probably England to date), so it’s high time we reflected and shared a few key lessons with those who have an appetite for joint scrutiny…..and of course, hindsight’s a wonderful thing!
The Welsh Government commissioned Cardiff Business School (Centre for Local and Regional Government Research) to deliver a major research brief on developing a culture of collaborative scrutiny in Local Government in Wales.
If you only take one message away from our workshop, it would be this – you can have the perfect formal arrangement and all the protocols in the world and yet joint scrutiny can still flounder at the first stair. Successful joint scrutiny requires a whole lot of personal effort to bring members together informally to develop a real sense of a ‘joint scrutiny identity’. Unless you can nail the ‘joint scrutiny culture’ and all overcome all the political challenges that will throw themselves in front of your path to success, collaborative scrutiny will be a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ affair.
And to make that investment, you need to dedicate somebody to the job – the bottom line is that you’re asking a group of scrutiny Members across authorities who may have very different structures and processes to work together as a team on something that may be controversial. Whether it’s scrutiny of waste or scrutiny of education, when you add politics and culture into this heady mix, there is the potential for things to become toxic. Joint scrutiny is dynamic and fast moving – one day things may be running smoothly and the next day there may be media chaos and talk of abandoning joint scrutiny altogether! Anticipating your next move and your reactions becomes critical and this requires significant commitment – this really isn’t something you can add onto the day job!
Collaborative scrutiny is highly resource intensive. Joint scrutiny on this scale had never been conducted before and there was a distinct absence of any guidance on how to do it – any protocols had to be developed by us as we progressed and learnt what worked and what didn’t. There were five authorities involved in the project and it took five times as long to perform simple tasks. Joint scrutiny cannot be rushed…. to ensure members understand what is required of them and to build your ‘team’ will take you significantly longer than expected….Members need to get to know each other and trust each other before they can even begin to scrutinise as a single body. In reality, for our project, the time spent on buses on route to site visits was far more effective in terms of building those relationships than formal meetings. We would urge you not to underestimate the cultural differences between organisations, as what might be culturally acceptable in one organisation, may not be completely unacceptable in another. The litmus test for us was when the committee sat after 2 years and we could not distinguish which authority or political party the Members represented.
Having delivered this project over several years, we are very clear that joint scrutiny is highly complex and that scrutineers should not underestimate the resources required in conducting it effectively. And if you’re not going to conduct it effectively, then there is little point in conducting it at all, as ‘tokenistic joint scrutiny’ is far more detrimental in terms of public perception, than no joint scrutiny. Our advice would be to think carefully whether joint scrutiny is required or is appropriate for the topic, because there are instances whereby scrutiny by the individual organisations may be a more fruitful course of action. On the process side, there needs to be unequivocal clarity on the terms of reference of the project and the purpose of scrutiny’s role. Everyone involved in collaborative scrutiny needs to be a clear of the respective roles of the ‘scrutineers’ and the ‘scrutinised’. For scrutiny to be effective and to avoid playing ‘catch up’, scrutiny must be factored into the governance arrangements from the outset and not bolted on at a later date.
Our joint scrutiny project placed us both in the public eye at various times and this meant that our process and our approach needed to robust enough to withstand the criticism of the cynical and the sceptics. The public’s perception of scrutiny on such a highly controversial issue was of paramount importance – we needed to ensure scrutiny delivered clear evidenced-based recommendations to respond to any ‘public scrutiny’ of itself. Ensuring that scrutiny is credible and that it can play a legitimate role in the governance of the project is the most important objective from our point of view. When you look back and can evidence that despite the trials and tribulations, scrutiny really made a difference and added value, then you know it was truly successful.