Agenda item

Update on Scrutiny Review

The report and appendix are attached.


Nichola Vine (Strategy and Commissioning Manager, Legal & Democratic) introduced the report, stating that an independent review had been commissioned to examine the Authority’s approach to scrutiny and to consider opportunities to improve upon current arrangements.


Nichola Vine advised that the independent report produced by Dr Jane Martin provided some positive feedback, particularly in relation to members’ commitment to continuous improvement, and the work undertaken by Democratic Services. The report outlined several opportunities for improvement culminating in a series of recommendations. The Committee’s view was sought in respect of the report and future arrangements for scrutiny.


Nichola Vine stated that a relaunch of the scrutiny function had been proposed with a stronger alignment with corporate objectives and a focus on collegiate, constructive and challenging discussion. This could be accomplished by a restructuring of committees to foster improved scrutiny of corporate themes and objectives; or to align committees more closely with change portfolio themes.


Nichola Vine advised that the report highlighted the opportunities presented by virtual meeting technology, including improved scope to engage with members of the public and external partners.


Nichola Vine highlighted the potential for the timetable for meetings to be reviewed to ensure that scrutiny committees could be held at the optimum time to facilitate input into decision-making. The report also highlighted the value of dynamic task and finish groups, drawing upon the experience of the COVID-19 Recovery Member Working Groups held in July 2020.


Nichola Vine advised that an opinion on the recommendations of the report was being sought from each scrutiny committee, as well as from members on an individual basis, to identify a plan to be presented to councillors following the May 2021 election.


The Chair emphasised the importance of the report. He highlighted the role of scrutiny to act as a ‘critical friend’ - to examine issues and work alongside members of the executive to identify scope for improvements to be made.


Councillor O’Rourke highlighted the advantages of select committees for effective scrutiny. This arrangement provided scope to interact directly with service users and stakeholders to examine areas where the Authority had performed well and areas where improvements could be sought.


Councillor Falp welcomed the report, stating that, at other authorities, it was not uncommon for scrutiny committees to be chaired by members from across party groups. She advocated that WCC adopt a similar arrangement. She suggested that a focus on joint working between committees would confer benefits.


The Chair highlighted the recommendation for a ‘chair of chairs’ with oversight of scrutiny across the organisation; this would facilitate improved cross-panel cooperation.


Councillor Boad commented that portfolio holders, group leaders and chairs of scrutiny committees had been interviewed by Dr Martin. However, with two exceptions, members of scrutiny committees had been overlooked. This constituted a missed opportunity.


Councillor Boad advocated that the chairs of overview and scrutiny committees be drawn from parties outside of the majority group. She highlighted the opportunities presented by Microsoft Teams to facilitate a broader range of scrutiny activities, enabling a focus on specific issues. She underlined the importance of performance data to inform scrutiny.


Councillor Reilly stated that, despite the shortcomings of the consultation, the report had arrived at a constructive critical framework. He commented that existing arrangements were constrained by the absence of a clear performance framework, stating that effective scrutiny depended upon clearly defined parameters of individual responsibility.


Councillor Gilbert indicated his agreement that chairs of scrutiny committees be drawn from outside of the majority group. He underlined the importance of scrutiny which adhered to the principle of acting as a ‘critical friend’ whilst prioritising rigorousness and objectivity. He suggested that an independent chair would meet the criteria for objectivity to hold the executive to account.


Councillor Jenns indicated his agreement that chairs be drawn from outside of the majority group. He stated that the report was well-timed; an opportunity was present to examine the efficacy of scrutiny arrangements. He expressed his support for the introduction of an overall chair of scrutiny committees, and wider utilisation of virtual meeting technology.


The Chair stated that an emphasis on the substance of the issues under consideration, rather than party politics, had served to benefit the work of the Resources and Fire & Rescue OSC. He stated that effective scrutiny sought the best outcome for residents; a fair and inclusive approach was a means to accomplish this.


Councillor Webb commented that, when scrutiny committees were introduced, members were encouraged to examine the relevant issues carefully to reach a combined understanding. He emphasised the importance of constructive conversation in an informal setting to achieve effective outcomes.


Councillor Gilbert highlighted the limitations of remotely-held committee meetings, stating that an improved standard of governance could be achieved by meeting in-person.


The Chair sought the views of the Committee to frame a resolution. There was a consensus that the Review would have benefitted from a broader consultation with members. The prospect of holding dynamic task and finish groups was welcomed by the Committee. There was support for the utilisation of digital technology to enable a wider range of scrutiny activities. However, it was felt that committee meetings should be held at Shire Hall once it was safe to do so.


The Chair stated that the prospect of independent chairs warranted attention and that the Authority stood to benefit from the introduction of external expertise.




That the Committee:


a)    Notes the findings of the Independent Review into Overview and Scrutiny;

b)    Recognises the opportunities presented by the utilisation of digital technology, whilst acknowledging the importance of committee meetings being held at Shire Hall;

c)     Recognises the potential benefits of engagement with external experts, stakeholders, and service users;

d)    Recognises the potential advantages of independent chairpersonship of overview and scrutiny committees.

e)    Supports the introduction of an overall chair of overview and scrutiny;

f)      Notes that a wider consultation with members during preparation of the report would have conferred advantages.


Supporting documents: