Treat scrutiny support as professional practice

As a scrutiny support team working in local government in Wales, we have been thinking about our work as professional practice, trying to get underneath what this means and considering how we can improve what we do. I’m not sure everyone sees scrutiny support in this way. It suffers from being a mix of different roles and can often be mistaken as a sub set of committee support. Now that scrutiny is coming of age, however, isn’t it time to recognise that scrutiny support is a professional practice in its own right?

Competencies

In defining our professional practice we started with the list of five core competencies that came out of work on the role of the professional scrutiny officer done by the University of Warwick and the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

This is our slightly tweaked list of those five competencies:

•Research – E.g. Undertaking and coordinating research activities. Gathering and analysing evidence from a range of sources. Managing public engagement activities.
•Communication – E.g. Managing meetings and facilitating communication between key individuals and groups involved in scrutiny projects. Producing reports that clearly and succinctly reflect councillors’ views and Inquiry findings. Sharing the work of scrutiny through social media and traditional channels.
•Political Environment – E.g. Working within a sensitive political environment and providing advice to cross party groups of councillors. Providing diplomatic challenge to all parties as well as knowledge of how and when to share information appropriately.
•Project Management – E.g. Being able to scope, plan, manage, review and evaluate scrutiny projects with councillors. Working within a wider scrutiny work programme.
•Relationship Management – E.g. Building networks and effective working relationships with councillors, officers and external stakeholders. Sourcing and sharing relevant knowledge and information. Acting as a public point of contact.

These competencies, which together make up the ‘meta role’ of the scrutiny professional, are reflected in our job descriptions and provide the focus for 1-2-1 supervision and discussions in team meetings.

Professional Practice

While I’m not sure there is a single definition of what makes something a professional practice, there are a number of aspects of scrutiny support that make me think that it is one. As well as a core set of competencies it is certainly a specialised field that requires a significant knowledge base and a commitment to continuous development. Scrutiny practitioners have to gain expertise in particular topic areas as well as in the practice of scrutiny itself.

Scrutiny Officers Development Project

In Wales, the Scrutiny Officers Development Project, being delivered in conjunction with a new Post Graduate Certificate in Governance, is an important and welcome step towards underlining the professional nature of scrutiny practice. This pilot project, supported by the Welsh Government, is being led by the scrutiny team in Cardiff Council in partnership with the University of South Wales. It is providing an accredited Masters level course that supports scrutiny practice and, by drawing together a group of scrutiny officers as participants that together represent the majority of Councils in Wales, it should also provide an excellent opportunity for shared learning.

Professional Values

As well as expertise and skills I would argue that there is also a core set of professional values underpinning scrutiny support even if these are not always well articulated. These include a commitment to the democratic process, independence of thought, evidence based policy making, openness, impartiality and fairness. It seems to me that these all operate at the heart of our professional practice.

Of course I’m not claiming that scrutiny is support is a profession in the same way as nursing, planning or teaching. While professional networks are taking shape there is no formal professional body, no Institute of Scrutiny Officers, providing accreditation or bending the ear of central government. Indeed, the research conducted by Warwick Business School and the Centre for Public Scrutiny mentioned above found ambivalence towards the idea from practitioners although, five years later, perhaps things may have shifted a little.

One achievable step forward, however, would be to gain greater recognition from councillors and other officers in local government that scrutiny support is indeed a distinct professional occupation. This will not only ensure increased respect for the function and the people who support it but will also help bring greater attention on the capacity and effectiveness of the scrutiny function as a whole.

This blog has been contributed by Dave Mckenna, Overview and Scrutiny Manager, Swansea Council. Dave is a regular ‘blogger’ and this is a web link to his site: : http://localopolis.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/64-treat-scrutiny-support-as.html

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