Building a supportive culture for scrutiny: Scrutiny meetup notes #7

In this meet up we worked on the tricky issue of the organisational culture that supports scrutiny (or not).

First we used a Venn diagram to find out how the ‘three pillars of scrutiny” (Culture, Process, Structure) were working for everyone. As you can see above, the most common position is to have process and structure working well but organisational culture (conditions) not so much.


We then ran some zoom polls (a first for the meetups) to explore the ‘six conditions for effective scrutiny’ taken from research by Dave.

Here are the results of the three questions we asked of the group:

  1. Which condition are you most pleased about?
  • Cross party working – 5
  • Councillor engagement – 5
  • Relationship with the executive – 1
  • Role in council governance – 4
  • Senior officer buy-in – 6
  • Direct scrutiny support – 6

2. Which condition are you most concerned about?

  • Cross party working – 3
  • Councillor engagement – 3
  • Relationship with the executive – 8
  • Role in council governance – 5
  • Senior officer buy-in – 7
  • Direct scrutiny support – 1

3. Which condition has the most potential to be improved?

  • Cross party working – 2
  • Councillor engagement- 5
  • Relationship with the executive – 8
  • Role in council governance – 3
  • Senior officer buy-in – 7
  • Direct scrutiny support – 2

As you can see, a real spread for each of the three questions showing, for this group at least, there really is no one size fits all (although plenty of scope for working on the relationship with the executive perhaps).

Walk Around

We then used a liberating structure in development called Walk Around to get people to talk in groups about their choices for questions 1 and 2. Here are some of the ideas from the discussions that participants shared in the chat:

Thinking about your organisation- Which condition are you most pleased about? What, practically, does scrutiny do to help make this possible?

Cross-party working

  • Proportionate representation on committee and task groups. 
  • Minority parties are usually keen to take part without being political.
  • Hearing the opposition spokespeople in a less combative situation

Councillor Engagement

  • Councillor engagement demonstrates enthusiasm!  it needs channelling and direction some times but of itself is a sign of a healthy democracy
  • Giving Councillors on a review a specific lead role
  • All non exec councillors are on a scrutiny committee and work groups
  • An officer from Stevenage had a great suggestion about giving individual members aspects of topics to research

Relationship with the executive

  • Writing papers on relevant issues
  • Consensus building on topic specific task groups.  
  • Regular informal meetings between cabinet member and chairman with open invite to scrutiny for the cabinet member

Governance role

  • Input and review of constitution supplemented by comprehensive set of procedure notes.
  • Structure set out in the Constitution

Senior officer buy-in

  • Addressing officer anxieties, outlining positive advantages of engaging, benefits to relations with members
  • Informal discussions between scrutiny officers and senior officers about the process and creating a degree of familiarity to help build the relationship.
  • Have a set of informal conversations (i.e. fortnightly or monthly catch ups via teams) with officers . Informal relations are key

Direct support

  • It works really well being an officer that purely supports scrutiny only as it means that you can be independent from the functioning of the Council in order to provide more independent challenge. It also means you don’t end up stepping on others toes and can push for things that you might not otherwise be able to.

Thinking about your organisation- Which condition are you most concerned about? What is the specific challenge and what would you like to see happening instead?

Cross party working 

  • Trying to break up group members sitting together, pick & mix sit next to someone from another party to try to get scrutiny to be non party.
  • Use task and finish groups to get people away from political groups!
  • Specific challenge is a lack of cross party working and there is a structural change occurring with Scrutiny and so for Scrutiny to work there needs to be a better focus. So I hope to see a work programme that allows for this.
  • Not sitting in political groups during scrutiny meetings.

Governance role

  • Challenge of maintaining scrutiny during lockdown.  learning from this experience to have in place an arrangement that allows senior scrutiny members to keep abreast of issues to formulate a work programme for post spike
  • concerns – role of governance. challenge of balance with scrutiny and Covid,
  • Challenge is how to handle Covid. We need to have the debate rather than ignore the issue.
  • A proper covid scrutiny role for our overview/management committee
  • How to scrutinise without adding pressure? How does scrutiny evolve to keep members informed and on the issues that matter whilst also not making a difficult situation more difficult?
  • Maintaining O&S during covid and zoom meetings but now it is up and running evidence gathering meeting tonight and another next week

Executive Scrutiny relationship 

  • Better engagement. Seeing scrutiny as support.
  • Discuss with other officers what decision are coming up during the year so you can help facilitate some pre-decision scrutiny before it even goes on the forward plan.
  • Trust and engagement

Senior Officer buy-in

  • Better communication and understanding of scrutiny’s role
  • I do feel better that others feel the same as me about senior officer buy-in – I am not alone!!

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