Readers of my CfPS blog will know that I’m a fan of the present Welsh approach to scrutiny and its central positioning in the drive to improve public services: this quick blog is just to confirm that my fan status remains undiminished! I’m on my way back from another successful, packed, thoughtful and challenging conference about scrutiny in Wales – this time organised by a handful of scrutiny officers from the Gwent authorities of Monmouthshire, Caerphilly, Newport, Torfaen and Blaenau Gwent, as part of their plan to keep up the momentum from the epic Scrutiny in the Spotlight Conference in Wales last year.
If you’re on Twitter you can follow the debate and questions via the hashtag #GwentChallenge14, but a few things struck me throughout the morning:
- Yet again, how the quality and effectiveness of scrutiny depends not on what scrutineers do but on the quality and effectiveness of the engagement and information they get from others – which all derives from the culture of the leadership, both political and managerial. There was some frustration over the apparent criticism of scrutiny for factors outwith their control, and some challenge back to the regulators over who scrutinised them. However, a challenge back to stay focused on what is in their control and to keep asking the questions, however difficult that can be, was reasonably well-received!
- Another common theme reflected the vital importance of the quality of member leadership and contributions, whether how to deal with members who don’t attend the pre-meeting and then spend the main meeting grandstanding, or how to raise the quality of planning, meeting agendas and questioning skills. Mandatory training was demanded by a few delegates: is this something that should be considered more widely?
- The scale of the financial challenge facing local authorities – and other partners – is looming ever larger in everyone’s minds. My response on the event’s Question Time panel was twofold: in scrutiny, less is more – financial restraints mean that robust prioritisation is even more important to ensure scrutiny is focusing its limited resources on the issues that really matter. And secondly, help is at hand! We have just produced a new guide to finance scrutiny, as part of our Welsh Government-funded programme, developed in partnership with Grant Thornton, packed full of tips, good practice examples, clear advice to understand a council budget monitoring paper and killer questions to ask.
Look out for this new guide, which is launched at the end of the month, on our website: www.cfps.org.uk and come to the free launch event on the morning of 26 June in Cardiff. The Minister, Lesley Griffiths AM, is launching it, and there will be opportunities to discuss common financial challenges and hear how others are tackling them. Get in touch with Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org to register your interest in attending.
Jessica Crowe, Executive Director, CfPS