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Agenda Item No. 6

 

The Vale of Glamorgan Council

 

Democratic Services Committee: 16th July, 2014

 

Report of the Head of Democratic Services

 

'Good Scrutiny? Good Question!: Auditor General for Wales Improvement Study: Scrutiny in Local Government

 

Purpose of the Report

1.         To apprise the Committee of the recently-issued report of the Auditor General for Wales following the all-Wales Scrutiny Improvement Study undertaken from late 2012 onwards.

Recommendation

THAT any views of the Committee be taken into account by officers, who be asked to present a further report to the next meeting, together with an accompanying Action Plan.

Reason for the Recommendation

To take account of the Auditor General's report and enable the Council to react as appropriate.

 

Background

2.         In 2012, the Auditor General committed to the Wales Audit Office (WAO) undertaking an All-Wales Scrutiny Improvement Study.  As part of the Council’s participation in that Study, a group of Officers and Members undertook a self-evaluation of the Council’s existing scrutiny arrangements, took part in peer review exercises and attended workshops.  As part of the peer review exercise, two meetings of our Scrutiny Committees were observed by a group from Neath and Port Talbot Council and the Council’s own Peer Review Group observed Scrutiny Committee proceedings at Swansea Council.

3.         The WAO Outcome Report from the above study was only issued on 29th May of this year and is being reported to the Democratic Services Committee and the Scrutiny Committee Chairmen and Vice-Chairmen Group.  The report is attached as Appendix A.

Relevant Issues and Options                  

4.         The Welsh Government  considers the importance of effective scrutiny to be magnified as public services respond to the challenge of the global financial situation, whilst continuously seeking to improve services.  Effective scrutiny can improve the evidence base for decisions on the allocation of resources as well as ensuring that decisions are transparent and in accordance with the needs of the local community. Scrutiny also has an important role to play in contributing to developing policy, undertaking specific reviews and in monitoring performance.

5.         The development of effective joint scrutiny arrangements for new and emerging collaborations is also likely to be a key focus for public services over the next few years.  Scrutiny functions will also need to continue to respond to the changes introduced through the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011.  These changes include the requirement to take into account the views of the public, and the ability to form joint overview and scrutiny committees with one or more local authorities.

6.         Weaknesses in council scrutiny arrangements have been identified in numerous reviews and audit and inspection reports since scrutiny arrangements were introduced into local government following the Local Government Act 2000. For example: the Welsh Government’s Review of Local Service Delivery in 2006; the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW) Chief Inspector’s Annual Report 2010-11; Estyn’s Annual Report 2009-10; and the Welsh Government’s explanatory memorandum to the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011.

7.         The Auditor General for Wales recognises the need for improved scrutiny arrangements and the need to focus on issues of transparency and openness to challenge.  These improvements are considered necessary to ensure that scrutiny plays a fully effective role in the good governance of local authorities in Wales.  For these reasons, in 2012, the Auditor General committed to undertake an Improvement Study to explore how scrutiny could improve in councils in Wales.

8.         The approach to this study was described as "innovative" and differed from the traditional audit approach by involving facilitation of 'real-time’ peer review, learning and improvement in scrutiny over a period of just over a year.  The aim of the study was to help councils achieve lasting improvements in scrutiny.  WAO staff worked with councils to provide an opportunity for those involved in scrutiny to identify where improvements to their own arrangements may be required, and to share knowledge and experience with others to find solutions.

9.         The study enabled councils to evaluate their own performance, share knowledge, develop skills, build and strengthen relationships, and identify new opportunities for working together with other councils and partners.  To support shared learning, Peer Learning and Evaluation Teams at each council, comprising scrutiny members and officers, took part. Results of the peer evaluations are set out in Appendix 1 of the WAO report.

10.      The study helped to shape the proposed Key Characteristics of Effective Overview and Scrutiny that the Welsh Local Government Association and partners had initially crafted from existing good practice guidance.  Since the completion of the study an agreed set of "outcomes and characteristics for effective local government overview and scrutiny" has been developed by the Wales Scrutiny Officers Network, supported by the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS).  These characteristics are listed in Appendix 2.

11.      On 28 November 2013 a national conference, "Scrutiny in the Spotlight: Investing to Maximise its Impact", was organised and hosted jointly by Cardiff Business School, the CfPS, the WAO, Welsh Government, and the Welsh Local Government Association.  Part of the conference programme was developed to explore some common themes that emerged from the WAO study and to seek ways of addressing the challenges ahead.

12.      The study report aims to highlight the challenges discussed at the conference and is based on councils’ self-evaluations; peer evaluations carried out by member and officer teams from other councils; and observations and existing accumulated knowledge of staff of the Wales Audit Office on councils’ scrutiny functions and governance arrangements.  It sets out what the Auditor General sees as the main challenges to more effective scrutiny and draws on various contributions to the national scrutiny conference in outlining potential solutions.

13.      Overall, the WAO has concluded that local government scrutiny in Wales is improving, but that councils need to do more to develop consistently rigorous scrutiny to increase public accountability in decision-making.   The WAO refer to councils demonstrating a genuine commitment to learning and improvement throughout the course of the study, and to scrutiny practice at committees in many councils having improved.  However, many challenges remain and the report states that the WAO, in summary found that:

a            scrutiny practice is improving, but the impact that scrutiny is having is not always clearly evident;

b            whilst a majority of councils consider that there is a supportive environment for scrutiny, some lack of clarity of roles and responsibilities can limit the effectiveness with which scrutiny holds the executive to account;

c             better planning, more effective chairing, and improvements to the range, quality and use of information are required to improve scrutiny across councils in Wales;

d            in general, council scrutiny is not always fully aligned with other council improvement processes, nor builds on external audit, inspection and review; and

e            more effective engagement with the public and partners will improve scrutiny and increase public accountability.

 

14.      Subsequent to the study and national scrutiny conference, the 'Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery', established by the First Minister of Wales, published its findings in January 2014.  The Commission’s report identified scrutiny as an important lever to secure improvement, but highlighted that it needed development as, amongst other factors, the fundamental importance of scrutiny in driving improvement was not recognised.  Amongst the Commission’s recommendations were that:

a            the importance, status and value of scrutiny must be recognised, prioritised, continually sustained and reinforced.

b            organisations must regard scrutiny as an investment to deliver improvements and future savings.  They must resource and support scrutiny accordingly.

 

15.      The 9 specific recommendations of the Auditor General are set out on page 7 of the report and, as indicated, each will need to be considered by a combination (as appropriate) of Councils, Welsh Government, the Welsh Local Government Association, the WAO and other regulators such as CSSIW and Estyn.

16.      The report, by its very nature, is generic and reflects practices and procedures observed by the various Peer Review Groups throughout Wales (each of which was accompanied by a representative from the WAO) and the WAO itself.  Many of the areas touched upon in the report do not form part of the 9 specific recommendations but, nevertheless, need to be considered in the light of the Council's existing scrutiny processes and the overall background to the report.  In doing so, Members are asked to note that the Peer Review Group from Neath and Port Talbot which visited the Vale of Glamorgan Council was complimentary in its assessment of what they observed.

17.      As far as our own observations of the scrutiny process at Swansea Council are concerned, these can be discussed / expanded upon during the meeting as necessary and via the comprehensive report which it is suggested be submitted to the next meeting of the Committee.

18.      Consideration of the report as a whole will need to give particular regard to areas such as:

·           obviously, the 9 specific recommendations of the Auditor General

·           an analysis of the Council's existing scrutiny arrangements in relation to the above recommendations

·           the requirement under the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011 that Councils must introduce processes to enable the views of the public to be brought to the attention of Scrutiny Committees in respect of business under consideration

·           a general need to seek to develop/improve public awareness of, and participation in, the scrutiny process.

 

19.      The above list is by no means exhaustive

Resource Implications (Financial and Employment)

20.      There are no direct implications arising from the report.  However, dependent on future consideration by the Committee, Cabinet and Council as appropriate of the Auditor General's report, resource implications will need to be monitored.

Sustainability and Climate Change Implications

21.      There are no direct implications arising from the report.

Legal Implications (to Include Human Rights Implications)

22.      Whilst the Auditor General's report is not a statutory document, the nature of the Study undertaken requires the Council to give comprehensive consideration to its content.

Crime and Disorder Implications

23.      There are no direct implications arising from the report.

Equal Opportunities Implications (to include Welsh Language issues)

24.      There are no direct implications arising from the report.

Corporate/Service Objectives

25.      The Council is committed to developing / increasing public engagementa nd participation at meetings.

Policy Framework and Budget

26.      Any future changes proposed would need to be considered by the Cabinet and/or Council as appropriate.

Consultation (including Ward Member Consultation)

27.      No consultation has been necessary.

Relevant Scrutiny Committee

28.      Corporate Resources.

Background Papers

'Good Scrutiny? Good Question!': Auditor General for Wales Improvement Study: Scrutiny in Local Government.

 

Contact Officer

Jeff Wyatt (01446) 709408

 

Officers Consulted

Managing Director

Head of Performance and Development

 

Responsible Officer:

Jeff Wyatt

Head of Democratic Services