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Agenda Item No. 6

 

The Vale of Glamorgan Council

 

Democratic Services Committee: 8th October, 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 Members of the specific recommendations and various other elements of the Wales Audit Office Scrutiny Improvement Study and to facilitate preparation of a draft Action Plan designed to address the recommendations.

Recommendation

1.         That the report be noted.

2.         That officers prepare a draft Action Plan for consideration at the next meeting of the Committee, taking into account any views expressed at the meeting.

Reason for the Recommendations

(1&2) To take account of the Auditor General's report and to enable the Council to react to the specific recommendations contained in the report 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 was initially reported to the Democratic Services Committee on 16th July 2014.  The Committee resolved that a further report be submitted to the next meeting, together with an accompanying Action Plan.  This report is also being submitted to the Scrutiny Committee Chairmen and Vice-Chairmen Group on 7th October 2014.  A further copy of the WAO report is attached as Appendix A.

Relevant Issues and Options

4.         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.

5.         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.

6.         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.

7.         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.

8.         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.

9.         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.

10.      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.

11.      The above list is by no means exhaustive.

12.      As indicated above, the WAO Study Report was submitted to this Committee in July of this year.  It was agreed that officers would draw up an Action Plan designed to set the Council's out response and way forward in respect of the nine specific recommendations emanating from the Study.  In addition to the nine recommendations themselves, Members are asked to bear in mind some of the key 'messages' contained in the Study report and summarised below (allowing for the fact that the comments are generic in nature):

·         Scrutiny practice is improving, but the impact that Scrutiny is having is not always clearly evident

·         whilst the 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

·         better planning, more effective chairing and improvements to the range, quality and use of information are required to improve Scrutiny across Councils in Wales

·         in general, Council Scrutiny is not always fully aligned with other Council improvement processes, nor builds on external audit, inspection and review

·          more effective engagement with the public and partners will improve Scrutiny and increase public accountability.

"Scrutiny practice is improving, but the impact that Scrutiny is having is not always clearly evident"

13.      The WAO conclude that, whilst improvements have been made, there is scope for further improvement amongst Councils generally to ensure that information presented to Scrutiny Committees is consistent, relevant, up to date and timely.  There is also an emphasis in the report on the fact that improvements to Scrutiny practice need to be judged against the outcomes that result from its activities.  In addition to not always being evident, the report refers to the impact of Scrutiny Committee as being "rarely captured'.  The report suggests some practical measures (paragraph 24) that Councils can put in place to encourage Scrutiny Committees to have a clear focus on outcomes.  The importance of Scrutiny Committee Members making clear the reasons why they have requested reports is referred to.  Similarly, there is reference to the need for officers who suggest items for consideration by a Scrutiny Committee being asked to ensure that there is a clear rationale for doing so. 

14.      In recognising the challenging task of developing more robust measures capable of demonstrating the impact of Scrutiny, (as alluded to above) a set of core characteristics and outcomes have been developed by the Wales Scrutiny Officers' Network, supported by the Centre for Public Scrutiny.  These are set out in the Study Report.

"Whilst the 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"

15.      The majority of Councils believe the relationship between Overview and Scrutiny Committees, the Executive and senior officers is supporting effective Scrutiny.  Some of the 'positive aspects' noted in the report include:

·         the development of pre-decision Scrutiny

·         Cabinet Members and senior officers making direct referrals of issues and decisions to Scrutiny Committees

·         Cabinet Members and senior officers taking part in work planning sessions for Scrutiny Committees

·         the existence of protocols/role descriptions setting out how Scrutiny Committees, Cabinet Members and senior officers should work together.

16.      Notwithstanding the above, the Study concluded that, in some Councils, the relationship between the Executive and Scrutiny is not always clear (including the role of Cabinet Members in attendance at Scrutiny Committees and the reasons for such).  Councils are urged to ensure that there is clarity regarding the role of Cabinet Members at Scrutiny Committee meetings.  It is also considered that Scrutiny Committees should ensure that they are clear on the reasons why they wish Cabinet Members to attend meetings before inviting them to attend. 

17.      In terms of the relationship between senior officers and Scrutiny Committee Members, again, a variety of practices were observed during the course of the Study.  One of the conclusions is that 'the expertise and knowledge of officers should be drawn upon sufficiently by Committees in carrying out their scrutiny role, whilst ensuring that scrutiny processes remain led by Scrutiny Committee Members.' 

18.      Ensuring that individuals involved in the scrutiny process have the right skills and competences is seen in the Study as a keen element of preparing for effective scrutiny.  This rational is applied not only to those involved in supporting and providing information to Scrutiny Committees, but also to 'scrutineers'.  This is one of the issues covered within the nine specific recommendations.  In particular, Members will be afforded the opportunity of attending sessions on questioning, analysing and chairing in order that they might develop their existing skills further.

"Better planning, more effective chairing and improvements to the range, quality and use of information are required to improve Scrutiny across Councils in Wales"

19.      A key element emanating from the Study is seen as the selection of appropriate topics for scrutiny, led by Scrutiny Members with support from officers and informed by clear selection criteria.  This should include determining whether topics should be examined through a Task and Finish Group or by the full Committee.  Whilst most Councils felt their work planning processes were effective, with many stating that Members' choice of topics was appropriate, Councils generally were less positive regarding the extent to which work programmes were balanced and focussed appropriately, or were developed following consultation with the public and partners and in discussion with senior officers and Executive members.  The Study concludes that the contents of Forward Work Programmes need to be based on sound criteria with a clear rational for topic selection.  Sufficient consideration should be given to the method of scrutiny rather than just the selection of topics.  A key criterion for the selection of topics and the method of scrutiny should be the extent to which Committees are likely to have an impact in the area they have selected.  Significantly, it is considered that 'to help ensure that scrutiny has an impact, Scrutiny Committees may have to balance a desire to examine a large number of topics with the likelihood of securing greater impact through focusing on a small number of items in more detail'. 

20.      Common 'shortcomings' identified during the Study included:

·         the extent to which work programmes were focussed on outcomes

·         that work planning processes were too 'officer driven'

·         that some Committee meeting agendas contained too many items

·         the extent to which the public were engaged in the selection of topics

·         aligning with Cabinet Forward Work Programmes so that scrutiny could contribute to improving proposed or existing policies.

21.      The range, timeliness, presentation and relevance of information available to Committees all have an impact on the effectiveness of scrutiny.  Councils identified a number of ways in which information to support scrutiny could be strengthened.  These included a need for less irrelevant detail in reports, a broader range of information to give a more rounded picture, as well as better quality and more timely information.  To achieve this, it is considered that Members need to ensure that clear communications channels are in place between Scrutiny Committees and those responsible for providing information to them.  Scrutiny Committee Members have an important role in shaping the content and format of information that is presented to them and, where appropriate, in challenging the way in which information is presented if it does not enable them to perform their role effectively.  Members of Committees need to be clear as to the purpose of requesting specific information and the outcome they are hoping to achieve as a consequence of examining it. 

22.      One section in the Study report deals with the various approaches within Councils to 'pre-meetings'.  Whilst acknowledging that pre-meetings can assist the scrutiny process, the study states "We have also observed some confusion about the role of pre-meetings.  There were some concerns that the use of pre-meetings could undermine the formal committee meeting, leading to "staged" questions with little spontaneity or follow-up questions."

23.      The Study identified some examples of challenging questioning by Scrutiny Committees, but in other cases, the process observed was regarded as 'ineffective'.  The WAO consider successful scrutiny to rely on effective questioning that follows lines of enquiry, probes for further information, is prepared to challenge when necessary and is clearly linked to the role of the Committee.  The role of the Chairman in facilitating and leading Scrutiny Committees is highlighted.  Examples of effective chairing of meetings, where the Chairman summarised discussions, ensured that questions and discussions remain focussed and set an appropriate tone for meetings, thereby allowing Members and witnesses to contribute constructively, were observed. 

24.      It should be noted that in the Peer Review visits undertaken to this authority, the Peer Group were complementary regarding the two Committees observed and, indeed, the role played by the respective Chairmen.

"In general, Council Scrutiny is not always fully aligned with other Council improvement processes, nor builds on external audit, inspection and review"

25.      This part of the WAO report examines how scrutiny interacts with, and utilises, the work of audit, inspection and review bodies to help inform and shape their work.  The report considers there to be opportunities for Scrutiny Committees to use the reports of external review bodies to inform its own work planning and to provide evidence to inform the findings of Scrutiny reviews.  In turn, those external review bodies may also look to take assurance from the work undertaken by a Council's scrutiny function.  The majority of Councils considered that communication between Scrutiny Committees and the Council's Auditors, Regulators and Inspectors could be improved.  The same principle was acknowledged in terms of the sharing of work programmes between Councils and external review bodies.  The nine recommendations contained in the WAO report include:

·         "R4 - Ensure that Scrutiny draws effectively on the work of audit, inspection and regulation and that its activities are complimentary with the work of external review bodies

·         R5 - Ensure that external review bodies take account of scrutiny work programmes and the outputs of scrutiny activity, where appropriate, in planning and delivering their work."

26.     urning to the issue of the alignment of scrutiny with wider Council improvement processes, the Study states "There is as clear role for an authority's scrutiny function in its improvement processes, as part of its role in holding local decision makers and policy makers to account, and in its policy development role."

27.      Significantly, only just over half of Councils consider that their Scrutiny Committees challenge poor performance effectively.  Whilst the WAO observed that most Council's Scrutiny Committees have a role in performance management arrangements, with regular reporting of performance information, it concludes that the level of understanding of the data provided varies amongst Councils.  Furthermore, questioning of performance is not always effective and there is 'limited connection between performance data provided to Committees and the outcomes that it purports to relate to.  In such cases, Committees would not be equipped to effectively contribute to performance evaluation and management."

"More effective engagement with the public and partners will improve Scrutiny and increase public accountability."

28.      The final section of the WAO Study report examines the extent to which Council scrutiny functions engage and involve partners, stakeholders, community groups and members of the public in their work.  Engaging the public can help to ensure that the selection of topics for scrutiny takes into account the views of local communities, improves the evidence base for scrutiny recommendations and demonstrates accountability for decisions, policies and performance.  The Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011 requires Scrutiny Committees to take into account the views of the public.

29.      Notwithstanding the above, most Councils recognise that the extent to which Scrutiny Committees 'ensure that the voice of local people is heard' is an area that needs to improve.  Broadening and improving engagement with partners is also recognised by Councils generally as an area for development.

30.      It is proposed that officers draw up an Action Plan in respect of the nine recommendations in the WAO report (taking into account any views expressed by Members) for consideration at the next meeting.

Resource Implications (Financial and Employment)

31.      There are no direct implications arising from this report.  However, dependent on consideration by the Committee, Cabinet and Council as appropriate of the draft Action Plan, resource implications will need to be monitored.

Sustainability and Climate Change Implications

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

Legal Implications (to Include Human Rights Implications)

33.      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, particularly the nine specific recommendations set out in the report.

Crime and Disorder Implications

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

Equal Opportunities Implications (to include Welsh Language issues)

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

Corporate/Service Objectives

36.      The Council is committed to developing/increasing public engagement and participation at meetings.

Policy Framework and Budget

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

Consultation (including Ward Member Consultation)

38.      No consultation has been necessary.

Relevant Scrutiny Committee

39.      Corporate Resources.

Background Papers

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

Report to Democratic Services Committee - 16th July, 2014

Report to Scrutiny Committee Chairmen and Vice-Chairmen Group - 30th April, 2014.

 

Contact Officer

Jeff Wyatt, Head of Democratic Services (tel: 01446 709408)

 

Officers Consulted

Managing Director

 

Responsible Officer:

Jeff Wyatt, Head of Democratic Services

 

 

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