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Scrutiny - a budding profession?
Local Government Chronicle – 27 August 2009

With the scope of council scrutiny set to expand, Mark Smulian charts the progress of this rapidly developing local government discipline

Imagine the conversation at a party:_"What do you do?"

"I'm a scrutiniser."

"What's that?"

"I help councillors ask questions."

"Oh?"

Put like that scrutiny hardly sounds an emerging local government profession, but it soon could be. Over the last decade a group has evolved, made up of officers who provide research, policy analysis and administrative support to the committees of councillors that hold cabinets to account.

An initiative launched this summer by the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) could lay the foundations for a formal profession, and some scrutiny officers would welcome that.

The move coincided with communities and local government secretary John Denham's July proposals to significantly extend councillors' external scrutiny powers, from the NHS and the police to central government agencies and parts of the private sector that affect the public realm, for example utilities.

This challenge, however, will require input from officers who know how to find, sift and present information.

Mr Denham's consultation paper said: "Councils would become a local point of accountability for citizens to call on to scrutinise public spending decisions. "Greater influence over all the money coming into their area would mean that councils could scrutinise more than 100bn a year from other deliverers of public services."

Councillors could "grill anyone charged with spending public money and demand action where they are coming up short".

It is a long way from scrutiny's struggling early days. The Local Government Act 2000 concentrated power in council cabinets and left the majority of councillors outside these and feeling powerless.

They were given scrutiny, but councillors usually want to get things done rather than ask people questions, and the role lacked wide appeal.

Since then scrutiny has established itself, and the number of councillors who remember the old committee system - and want it back - has diminished. When scrutiny was new it was unclear who should staff it, and some councils pragmatically tacked it on to democratic services.

Having developed in this somewhat haphazard way, and at different paces in different councils, scrutiny has not been something that requires specific qualifications. Its officers have come from all manner of backgrounds.

Whether what they do amounts to 'a profession' might have remained speculation, were it not for Mr Denham's proposals and the potential expansion of their role. The CfPS paper on scrutiny as a profession says: "It seems clear that working in scrutiny requires a particular degree of knowledge and that there is increasingly an identifiable body of persons who do this work."

Its 2008 members' survey found 65% of officers would be interested in joining a scrutiny membership body and there was similar interest in a scheme to develop accredited professional standards. Only 2% did not see scrutiny as a profession.

CfPS acting executive director Tim Gilling says: "Certainly there is talk among officers that scrutiny is something distinct from democratic services and after 10 years there are officers who have made a career in scrutiny and who never worked in other democratic services roles. Somescrutiny officers think it should become a profession."

The CfPS is not yet looking to establish professional entrance examinations, let alone the monogrammed ties and chains of office beloved of other professional bodies. It is "looking at a professional structure to support staff perhaps with professional competencies", Mr Gilling says.

He welcomes Mr Denham's proposals, but would like to see a consistent set of powers, and, crucially, a duty on councils to resource scrutiny.

Councillors can, for example, obtain information from the NHS and require its managers to appear before them, but cannot force anyone from other local area agreement partners to turn up.

Mr Gilling says: "The powers need coherence and a duty on councils to resource scrutiny with staff would be useful, it's in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill that top-tier councils should have a scrutiny officer, but more on resourcing is needed."

Resources is a troublesome issue because scrutiny committees are in the awkward position of depending for resources on the whims of the council cabinets they scrutinise. So cabinets that may be resistant to scrutiny could reduce its bite by the simple expedient of withholding money.

Scrutiny resources might also seem a tempting cut for councils in a recession. Indeed, Mr Gilling says: "Since the recent elections there is some anecdotal evidence that scrutiny resources have changed and a feeling that it is not resourced as well as it was before."

Those who champion scrutiny still face a problem of credibility - it cannot compel anyone to do anything as a result of its deliberations, and so can still be seen as a way of keeping backbench councillors occupied.

Mr Gilling counters: "Scrutiny takes a strong role in policy development, but its power really lies in influencing.

"If a scrutiny committee has really researched some matter, talked to people involved and found sound evidence it would be quite difficult for an executive to say 'thanks but no thanks'.

"It's not a second best role [to a cabinet seat]. It's really important to hold powerful people to account."

There is a range of views among scrutiny officers on their status. Laura Latham, senior democratic services officer at Blackpool BC, works both in scrutiny and democratic services and so is wary of any separation.

She says: "I think scrutiny is part of the democratic services profession. You need additional skills in research and project management but those are found widely in local government and the private sector.

"I'm not supportive of a fixed route of entry. When scrutiny started there was no mass upskilling of people who went into it; they were just tasked with making it work."

David Collins, chief scrutiny officer at Newport City Council, thinks the CfPS could become the professional body for scrutiny and he sees clear evidence of a skill set already in existence.

"Examinations for entry could be a good idea, and might emerge, but we've recruited staff from all kinds of backgrounds," he says. "I've found those who have been in scrutiny elsewhere have sailed on to the shortlists, whereas those from other fields have not so easily met the criteria so it could be there is a distinct skill set here and qualifications could help."

Mark Lowe, chair of the South East Scrutiny Officers Network, says 85% of his members would be interested in joining a professional association, and 60% would want such a body to cover both scrutiny and democratic services, with the majority thinking it should concern itself mainly with training and knowledge sharing.

Scrutiny has carved out a role, but it was originally something imposed on local government. With all political parties now claiming a commitment to localism, its position could be in doubt - after all were central government to cease to dictate administrative arrangements to councils, they would be free in theory to return to the committee system or some other structure.

With that in mind scrutiny has to prove that it adds value and drives improvement, and is not the preserve of busybodies.

Called to account: Scrutiny success

Worcestershire CC - Floods

Worcestershire and its districts held a joint scrutiny of the devastating 2007 floods, which gathered evidence from councils, fire and police services, Severn Trent Water, the environment agency, the media and others.

It recommended a communications review, called for action against illegal connections to infrastructure that cause sewage backup and water run-off into drains, and for each district to assess whether it had the technical capability to deal with flood issues in planning decisions.

Enfield LBC - Parkinson's disease

People with Parkinson's disease had long campaigned for specialist nursing but had failed to persuade the local primary care trust to invest in this service despite funding being available. Enfield intervened by using its scrutiny power to call senior health staff before councillors to explain themselves. This produced a response and the care was then provided.

Craven DC - Culture

Craven scrutinised its cultural service, an important aspect of work given the area's reliance on tourism.

It said more of the council's collections of paintings, archaeology and other artefacts should be displayed across the district rather than stored, a full-time arts development officer post should be created and that responsibility for conservation area assessments should transfer to the planning service.

North East Lincolnshire Council - Governance

A scrutiny report recommended the council should not order Immingham [town council's] abolition, despite a referendum vote in favour of this in 2006 due to public dissatisfaction with the body.

It found subsequent developments had been sufficiently positive for the town council to continue, but called for quarterly progress reports, and urged North East Lincolnshire to provide some services from financially troubled Immingham civic centre.