What is scrutiny and how can it get better?

Scrutinising scrutiny
I’ve just spent the larger part of my day reading about the scrutiny processes of local councils. Of course, this is the sort of thing I do for fun, but there was a serious purpose at hand. As part of my MA in online journalism, but also as part of my work at Podnosh I’ll be looking at how the web can be used to improve scrutiny processes in local government.

How are you going to start?
There’s a lot to do, but I’ve started by trying to answer a simple question for myself: What is scrutiny? That’s what all the reading is about. As someone who worked as the local government correspondent for a pretty decent local newspaper, I should have a fairly strong knowledge of this, but if I’m being honest I don’t. And if I don’t know then I imagine I’m not alone.

Shut up and tell me what scrutiny is
Scrutiny – means ‘to search’ and apparently originally meant to ‘sort rubbish’ (hmm… interesting!). In its local government context scrutiny is the business of examining and holding to account the decision-making process. The Local Government Act of 2000, required all councils to make decisions through an executive group of councillors, or cabinet. It also set up an overview and scrutiny process so councillors outside the executive could overview the council’s decisions to ensure they met the requirements of the budget and the council’s policy framework. I learned all that from Wikipedia and the Centre for Public Scrutiny’s Introduction To Scrutiny. Whoppee!

I’m going to be writing about this a lot, so I won’t dawdle, but I already have a few thoughts:

1. Scrutiny’s bloody important, because it goes to the heart of the democratic process. It’s how decision making (what government does) is overseen and checked and everyone should be interested in it, because it’s the crucial bit of democracy: we elect people, they do stuff. We need to know about it.

2. Scrutiny is difficult to understand and it isn’t, well, sexy. Which is weird, given point one.

3. I’ve singularly failed to answer how it can be made better. But it strikes me it might be a bit early for that!


  1. Rich Watts says:

    All I know about scrutiny is that, when I used to have to appear as an Officer before Overview & Scrutiny, I didn’t sleep well for about 3 days before, had a stampede of elephants in my stomach on the day, and needed a stiff drink afterwards! All of which, of course, I interpret as meaning Scrutiny can be, and often is, a very effective means of analysing the work of the public sector.

    Will follow your work in this area with interest – thanks for sharing.

  2. Andrew Brightwell says:

    Thanks Peter. That video and explanation are really helpful. Thanks very much for that. In particular, it very effectively communicates how important the process is for affecting and improving the functions of a council.

    Paul, You make a very good point and I’m going to follow up on that as soon as I can.

    Rich, That’s amazing. I used to sit through quite a few overview and scrutiny meetings at councils and had no idea that it was so nerve-wracking! I guess it is, as you say, evidence of the effectiveness of the process. But I wonder if it’s inspiring such a response whether that could also have negative impact on the process.

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