The ‘Cinderella’ function

The Government’s recently published statutory guidance for councils and combined authorities (2019) makes it clear that the role of scrutiny in publicly holding decision-makers to account is critical in building residents’ trust in their council.

The Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) recently carried out a comprehensive survey of officers and councillors involved with overview and scrutiny across England and Wales, to find out of how well scrutiny is working in councils.

More than 434 people responded, representing 62 per cent of councils. Both councillors and officers involved in scrutiny told us that they are confident about the impact of their work on the lives of local people, but they need this confidence in the value of scrutiny to be shared across the council. 

For example, only 31 per cent of all respondents agreed that ‘there is parity of esteem between the executive and scrutiny’. More than half of all respondents feel that scrutiny needs more formal powers to have a wider impact by looking at the work of partners and other service providers such as local health services. “Scrutiny could do with having a bit more local gravitas; health partners, in particular, tend to see it as a bit of a box-ticking exercise,” said one.

More than half of local government scrutineers were positive about the future of scrutiny. However, more than a third of respondents felt that party politics has a negative impact on scrutiny’s work: “Having seen a change in political executive recently, the attitude to scrutiny has changed significantly.”

Officers also reported that more men have more senior positions on scrutiny committees (as either chair or vice-chair), and the proportion of men taking on these roles has increased since 2015. “I think there’s a genuine problem with the dominance of men in chairman roles. The male councillors here have a heroic view of leadership, so an aggressive male always steps forward and the female councillors always stay silent,” said one respondent.

In the past month, CfPS has published new guidance, ‘Taking scrutiny seriously’, to help chief executives and senior leaders in councils to address scrutiny’s ‘Cinderella’ status in their council, and to ensure that the function is effective in holding decision-makers to account. Copies will be sent to every council chief executive in England and Wales. 

Key findings

  • 87% agree that ‘scrutiny benefits from direct officer support’
  • 37% agree that ‘scrutiny works hard to involve and engage the public in its work’
  • 31% agree that ‘there is parity of esteem between the executive and scrutiny’
  • 60% agree that ‘scrutiny needs more formal powers to look at the work of partners and other service providers in its area’
  • 36% agree that ‘party politics has a negative impact on scrutiny’s work’
  • according to scrutiny officers, the gender split of chairs and vice-chairs is 65:35 men to women
  • 63% agree that ‘scrutiny has an impact on the lives of local people’
  • 61% agree that ‘the future for scrutiny is positive’
  • 82% of statutory scrutiny officers feel supported in their role
  • scrutiny officers estimate that 82% of scrutiny recommendations in 2018/19 were accepted, and 65% were successfully implemented.

You can download the publication ‘Taking scrutiny seriouslyis from the CfPS website.

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