Scrutiny should be 'critical friend'

WHAT is the point of Scrutiny? That’s a question the department needs to ask itself.

WHAT is the point of Scrutiny? That’s a question the department needs to ask itself.

Surely its first duty is to make Guernsey’s government better. If, during that process, it discomfits departments, ministers or civil servants, then so be it. But if that starts to become the purpose of Scrutiny, like some quasi opposition, I think they will have lost the plot.

Nor is the Scrutiny Committee solely responsible for holding our government to account. In Guernsey’s unusual, non-executive, non-party system, that’s the job of all States members.

Remember Jane Stephens pushing for GCSE results to be made public?

That duty even extends to ministers. The Policy Council has no collective responsibility and if Minister X thinks Department Y is making a pig’s ear of its mandate, then he/she is just as obligated to highlight it as any other deputy.

The unique role of Scrutiny is to use its committee resources, scant though they are, to thoroughly research issues of importance and make constructive proposals on how States policy and service delivery can be improved. They may indeed heavily criticise current practice in the process, but it’s the ‘value added’ they bring that really matters. Scrutiny, done well, should be part of the process of government, not sitting completely outside it. However much some people dislike the phrase, it should indeed be a ‘critical friend’.

Where do public hearings fit into that process? Well, they are obviously important and it will be good to see far more of them if resources allow. But they should be only the tip of the iceberg.

If Scrutiny is really looking into an aspect of government in depth, with a view to making improvements, they’ll need to do a massive amount of research and consideration in advance of cross-examining the minister(s) concerned. Otherwise it will just become a point-scoring exercise. Great slapstick for the public to watch and for the media to report, but not achieving a great deal. A sort of local equivalent of that totally pointless UK ritual called Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Scrutiny says it wants to become more like select committees in the UK. Fine, but that doesn’t mean they suddenly become kangaroo courts. Select committees may only tend to hit the headlines when they do things like giving the Murdochs a grilling but that’s a tiny part of their job. These cross-party committees mainly do diligent work outside the public eye before producing reports on how to improve both policy and process.

If Guernsey’s Scrutiny Committee wants to become more aggressive in its approach, it will also need greater powers. Once it becomes clear that its main purpose is to name and shame, then voluntary cooperation from fellow politicians and civil servants will start to evaporate. They will then need the power to enforce attendance and participation and clarify the rights of public employees when the outcome of a cross-examination could jeopardise their future career.

Public servants should indeed be held accountable, but they must also be treated fairly and politicians shouldn’t be able to just offload responsibility for departmental failings. Identifying staff shortcomings is important but the political board should be ultimately accountable for both the policies and the man management within any department. If they take credit for the successes, they should also take the blame for the failures.

What worries me is that Scrutiny will get such a taste for knockabout encounters that it will start to see its main role as twisting tails, allocating blame and making headlines. It would be a sad dumbing down of the whole process if all it did was to point out shortcomings without proposing well-thought-through alternatives.

In Guernsey’s system, every single member of the States should see him or herself as part of the executive, with a duty to help deliver the best possible policy and services. That includes members of Scrutiny.

Of course, if Guernsey was to change to a cabinet system of government, then perhaps a purely fault-finding, blame-gaming approach to Scrutiny would be more understandable. It would be very sad though. Not everything in the UK is better than in Guernsey and their gladiatorial approach to politics can be very destructive – even if it does provide good headlines.

Comments for: "Scrutiny should be 'critical friend'"

Rustylink

A thought provoking and interesting analysis. Certainly the UK knock about Question Period is not an example to be emulated, But US Senate Committees on scansion demonstrate what informed questioning can achieve. Similarly the Canadian Federal Parliament offers a more constructive and less vitriolic version of Question Period than Westminster or the French Assembly which is (if possible) even worse.

The point of constructively critical questions should ideally be to draw attention to issues and actions that need to be scrutinised or made public. The other vital purpose of Questioning by Deputies in the States is to make sure that Ministers are familiar with all aspects of their responsibilities, and that they are aware of public feelings expressed through the elected Deputies.

Appropriate questions can also help the

Minister retain control over his departments officals, and their actions. Unassisted in this way Ministers are always vulnerable to the efforts of those who feed them what they like to hear rather than what they should hear about. And that is also why the presiding Officer must not be permittd to protct Ministers from making a fool of themselves if they are not up to the tasks they are directing on behalf of the taxpayer.

Pmne can only speculate that, if there had been a less gentlemanly club atmosphere, lapses in administration like the recent check fraud might have been caught before the island lost £2.6-million. There are many issues that can be brought to the attention of Ministers and Board, even in a consensus system, that can be forced upon the attention of government by constructive and active questioning. Questions and the answers they stimulate, can raise issues and inform the public.

Even Guernsey government, Ministers and Civil Servants, can benefit from listening to the views and opinions of the people's representatives.