Welsh Councils getting better at challenging themselves but more consistency is needed to improve accountability

28 May 2014 - 4:41pm

Strong scrutiny plays a vital role in ensuring council decisions are soundly based in these austere times, says Auditor General

Local government scrutiny in Wales is improving but councils need to be more consistent in their approach if they are to add value on behalf of the taxpayer, according to a report released today by the Auditor General for Wales. The report also points to a need for councils to do more to demonstrate the impact of scrutiny and clarify the role scrutiny committees play in promoting improvement and challenging decisions.

In his report the Auditor General states that while councils are actively working to improve scrutiny the outcomes are not always clear, despite significant investment of time and resources in the scrutiny process.

While the report found that there is a clear enthusiasm from councils to learn and improve their approach, it also highlights that councils are struggling to demonstrate the impact of scrutiny. This, together with some lack of clarity around the role scrutiny plays in holding the executive to account, can lead some people to question the importance and value of scrutiny. However, particularly when tough decisions need to be taken, the importance of effective scrutiny should not be underestimated. 

Auditor General for Wales, Huw Vaughan Thomas said today:

This study shows that while there are pockets of good scrutiny there is a lack of consistency. With public services facing great financial challenge, there has never been a more important time for councils to develop effective and robust scrutiny. Decisions need to be consistent, transparent and rigorous and greater recognition of the value of scrutiny is vital if councils are to see real benefits in securing value for money for the taxpayer.

The report makes a number of recommendations aimed at improving the recognition, effectiveness, and impact of scrutiny, including:

  • better planning of scrutiny activity;
  • aligning scrutiny programmes with other council improvement arrangements and the work of external review bodies;
  • improving the quality and range of information that scrutiny receives;
  • clarifying the role of executive members and senior officers in contributing to scrutiny; and
  • properly evaluating the impact of scrutiny.

The study, undertaken with all 22 Welsh councils, consisted of a process of self-evaluation followed by peer reviews, with partner councils observing and sharing  views of each others scrutiny committees. Following on from the successful Scrutiny in the Spotlight conference that took place in November of last year, the Wales Audit Office also releases next week a collection of resources aimed at helping support continued improvement in Welsh councils’ scrutiny arrangements. The Wales Audit Office is keen to continue the conversation around this report and the resources and are encouraging councils to get involved via Twitter and the hashtag #scrutinywales.