The report and appendices are attached.
Sarah Duxbury (Assistant Director, Governance and Policy) 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.
Sarah Duxbury advised that an independent report had been produced by Dr Jane Martin, a former Local Government Ombudsman, following engagement with members and officers. The report and recommendations had been shared with the chairs of the four overview and scrutiny committees prior to formal consideration by each committee. Feedback from the scrutiny committees had been incorporated within a finalised report. In September 2021, Cabinet resolved to support the proposals. Following consideration by this Committee, approval would be sought from full Council.
The Chair observed that the initiative to review scrutiny arrangements had been prompted by publication of statutory guidance on overview and scrutiny and the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny (CfGS) issuing an updated ‘Good Scrutiny Guide’. He drew members’ attention to case studies included within the CfGS document which highlighted the advantages of scrutinising performance by looking outside of an organisation.
In response to the Chair, Sarah Duxbury advised that when supporting scrutiny committees and task and finish groups, Democratic Services officers would seek to gather information from external sources, including examples of good practice elsewhere. This approach had proved to be effective, notably during task and finish group work examining GP services, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and special educational needs. Scrutiny recommendations emerging from task and finish group work had supported the development of proposals progressed to Cabinet. She advised that training was provided to members to support continued development of scrutiny skills. Case studies, such as those outlined by CfGS, would be made available to members as part of the ongoing training programme.
Councillor Horner highlighted the valuable role scrutiny could play in the development of policy, as evidenced by task and finish group work. However, there were inherent political challenges to overcome. He underlined the importance of external training for members, including opportunities for liaison with members of other local authorities to compare approaches to scrutiny. He stated that an overtly inward-looking approach could act as a barrier to effective scrutiny.
The Chair drew attention to the principle of ‘transparency’ recommended by the report, which stated that “the scrutiny function should shine a light internally and externally [as] an important vehicle for public consultation which should engage external partners, local people, and service users, and represent their views.” This was a positive step.
Councillor Gifford stated that the introduction of the scrutiny function alongside executive arrangements had been a retrograde step for local authorities. He stated that a committee system enabling a focus on individual service areas provided a more effective means of monitoring performance. However, task and finish groups provided a means to examine good practices outside of Warwickshire.
Councillor Birdi highlighted the importance of timetabling meetings to best support pre-decision scrutiny. This had been recognised in the recommendations of the report. He emphasised the importance of maintaining adequate officer resources in support of scrutiny. He stated that the recommendations of the report would put the Authority on the right path.
Councillor Horner stated that provision of officer support and resources for scrutiny were of critical importance. He suggested that development of the capacity of Internal Audit to provide information could offer a means to support scrutiny.
In response to Councillor Horner, Sarah Duxbury advised that the scrutiny function had previously been supported by a team of dedicated scrutiny officers. However, this arrangement had been curtailed in favour of a Democratic Services Team with responsibilities for supporting both committee work and scrutiny inquiries. This approach held advantages for staff recruitment and retention, as well as provision of a more agile Democratic Services team. She advised that the Democratic Services Team had recently been restructured and recruitment to fill a vacancy was underway. The effectiveness of the new structure would be reviewed once the new arrangements had fully embedded.
In response to the Chair, Sarah Duxbury advised that measuring the impact of scrutiny was inherently challenging. To determine whether the measures proposed had operated successfully, it would be necessary to seek the opinions of those members involved to determine whether they found the process to be impactful. Feedback from other participants would also support an examination of the effectiveness of the refreshed approach. The recently formed ‘Voice of Warwickshire’ residents panel provided a means to seek a view from members of the public on prospective scrutiny items. The updated Performance Framework would provide a means to measure the impact of scrutiny against Council Plan objectives.
Sarah Duxbury offered to provide a briefing note to members of the Committee outlining key measurable factors which could be utilised to gauge the impact and effectiveness of the proposed scrutiny measures to occur at the appropriate time.
The Chair summarised the points made by the Committee, stating that there was support for the proposals for scrutiny reform outlined within the report. However, the Committee would like attention to be given to definitions of success and for measures to be enacted to monitor the progress of the new arrangements. By doing so, it would be possible to ascertain whether the review of overview and scrutiny has achieved the desired outcome.
That the Committee:
a) Supports the proposals for scrutiny reform as set out in the report and supports their recommendation to Council.
b) Requests that attention to be given to the definitions of success and for the progress of scrutiny reform proposals to be monitored, enabling a review of their effectiveness at the appropriate time.