Getting Research Into Local Government Scrutiny

 

Following on from the popularity of Lauren Carter-Davies’ blog – Engaging with the Policy-making and Scrutiny Process in Wales: How Does Research Get into the National Assembly for Wales? we asked Dave Mckenna, from Swansea Council, to explore how research can be used  in the local government scrutiny process.

Compared with national institutions such as the National Assembly for Wales, local government scrutiny is perhaps a less popular destination for academics.  There is no reason, however, why this should be the case and researchers seeking impact should think about scrutiny as a genuine opportunity.  Yes, it is at a lower scale but there is the potential for more targeted, immediate and flexible work as well as joint projects and productive engagement.

It’s the research impact opportunity on your doorstep.

Scrutiny and Research

Most local councils have a split between cabinet (executive) and scrutiny (non-executive) in their decision making.  Even in Scotland, where no councils have this split, and in those English councils who have chosen to opt out, some form of scrutiny may still take place through working groups or a committee for example.

In practice scrutiny is conducted by one or more committees who operate in a similar way to select committees in parliament.  They hold cabinet members to account, monitor service performance, investigate topics of concern and contribute to policy and service development.

A key principle of scrutiny is that the work is underpinned by evidence.  Scrutiny councillors will seek the views of the public, partner organisations and external experts in the work – both to seek assurance that the Council is doing the right things and to support innovation and new policy directions.

While all of the work is evidence based it is in support of in depth inquiry or review work that research is most likely to be sought.  Typically inquiry work will take six months or more and be done by a task and finish group or specialist committee.  At the end a final report will be presented to Cabinet detailing conclusions and recommendations – Cabinet will then respond to the recommendations, putting in place action plans if required.

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How to Get Your Research into Scrutiny

Getting research into local government scrutiny is a little more complex than it is with Parliament or the National Assembly for Wales for a number of reasons:

  • In general Councillors don’t have the support that AMs, MSPs and MPs have to track down research. There are exceptions – Cabinet Members will have support to deliver their portfolios, party groups may have some support and scrutiny committees may have support officers.
  • There is no Local Government Research Service as such – some Councils belong to the LGIU and get research briefings through that organisation. The LGA, WLGA and COSLA are umbrella organisations that may also provide a link to research.
  • Every Council will have its own approach to how it manages access to research and every council will have its own culture in this respect
  • Councils will be interested in research if it fits with current priorities e.g. policy development or scrutiny topics but finding out what each council is working on may be a painstaking business
  • Councillors are busy people. Many have full time jobs and all are kept busy by constituency work – research needs to be presented in way that makes conclusions and recommendations and clear

Research findings, therefore, need to be relevant and digestible.

There are nevertheless ways to get your research into scrutiny and scrutiny councillors will be very grateful if you do.  There is perhaps also a higher likelihood of impact albeit at a smaller scale.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Look for relevant inquiries. In depth pieces of scrutiny work will often advertise a call for evidence online.
  2. Contact the scrutiny support officers. Scrutiny in every council is likely to have a general email address and something sent to the council’s general email will also find its way through. The scrutiny officers can then direct any information to the relevant committees or working group and may be directly supporting relevant work.
  3. Contact committee chairs.  On council websites you can find the details of scrutiny committees and work plans.  You should also be able to find details of the relevant chairs – you contact them direct.
  4. Get in touch with the Centre for Public Scrutiny. This is a national organisation that provides regular briefings and reports for scrutiny.  They may be working on something relevant to your area.
  5. Get co-opted. Sometimes committees or working groups appoint academics as external experts.  Swansea’s recent inquiry into school governance, for example, worked with Professor Catherine Farrell of South Wales University as a co-opted member.
  6. Get commissioned. Occasionally scrutiny councillors will commission an external piece of research.  Typically relevant academics will be approached to bid for the work or those on the council’s procurement registers may also be asked to tender.  Making sure that your research expertise is visible online is the first thing you need to do.
  7. Partner Up. You don’t need to engage with all councils but could target those who might be interested in your research issues. You could start with the council where you live or where your institution is.   More than ever councils are looking for new ways to deliver projects and level in resources so may be open to proposals.
  8. Respond to What Councils Need. Scrutiny councillors (as well as councillors in general) will often be thinking about the same issues and will welcome lessons from research.  Tuning into this and responding with something useful will get your research into scrutiny processes. Here is a great example from the University of Stirling of a briefing on prevention that responds to an issue that councils were known to be struggling with.

About the author: Dave Mckenna is a Scrutiny Manager at the City and County of Swansea. He is also a Politics PhD student, and publishes a regular blog called Localopolis

Dave would like to express his gratitude to Dr Peter Matthews of Stirling University whose suggestions led to a number of improvements to this post

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