England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Scrutiny: unleashing the power of individual voices

Image: CfPS

Viewpoint: Jessica Crowe, Executive Director of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, talks to LGiU about what makes ‘good scrutiny’

The CfPS tenth anniversary annual conference and awards has just taken place: two days, 200 delegates, 32 speakers (plus an ‘unconference’ – ScrutinyCamp – with informal session leaders) and more than 250 tweets (see #cfps2013 to follow the debate). The theme of the event emerged and was reinforced over the two days as being the power of listening to individual voices and acting collectively. And despite the tendency of scrutineers to be sometimes a bit jaded, it was unbelievably inspiring.

Whether watching the fifteen two-minute videos for the shortlisted entries for the Good Scrutiny Awards, listening to Robert Francis QC provide harrowing details of what happens when public services stop listening to patients and staff, or seeing councillors get a ‘eureka’ moment as our creative facilitators suggested new ways for them to understand how best to hear what people are telling them and influence others to take it on board, it’s hard to pin down one thing for a 400 word blog!  But I’ll focus on the Awards.

The winner of the Scrutineers’ Choice award (voted on by conference delegates) and the Overall Impact through Scrutiny award (chosen by the judges) was the same entry: Boston Borough Council for its review of the impact of inward migration. More on Boston later, but that both the ‘experts’ and Boston’s peers judged this to be a worthy winner illustrates a growing consensus on what ‘good scrutiny’ involves:

  • An outward, not inward, focus – on what’s going on in communities not inside the town hall;
  • Evidence coming from voices of communities not just presentations from council officers;
  • A robust process whereby recommendations are followed-up to ensure action is taken.

In Boston’s case, their scrutiny process succeeded in turning a tense local situation into a reasoned and frank debate about immigration, where everyone felt able to share their concerns in an inclusive way. It really demonstrates scrutiny’s ability to facilitate a powerful public discourse, and the approach has been picked up by other councils, Parliament and the Home Office.

Boston also illustrates a theme which we saw emerging across many of the entries: where executives are showing themselves mature enough to ask scrutiny to help them sort a problem – and scrutiny responding likewise. Given the challenges local government faces, no-one can afford to play games. The key is to recognise where scrutiny’s unique ‘critical friend’ approach can really make a difference. Boston’s leadership did this and we were delighted to present the award jointly to the Leader of the Council and the Leader of the Opposition who chaired the review.

Jessica Crowe is Executive Director of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, a national charity dedicated to promoting public scrutiny and accountability. She blogs at www.cfps.org.uk/blog and you can follow CfPS on Twitter at @cfpscrutiny.