Everybody needs good neighbours – why we should learn from our public sector peers

The following blog explores the Wales Audit Office’s approach to ‘facilitated self-evaluation’ used to contribute to last week’s report on scrutiny in local government – ‘Good scrutiny? Good Question! The blog also demonstrates how this approach has helped break down some of the barriers to learning from our peers in the public sector.

scrutiny blog social mediaWe have all been present at a conference where we have talked about ‘best practice’ and to some extent it has become a buzz phrase for the Welsh public services of late. We are aware that resources are strained and that all across the public sector we need to find ways of maximising dwindling resources while still delivering a good service. The problem is, and we are all guilty of this, we are not always willing to share our ideas or innovations. But comparing with others and sharing ideas is only ever useful if you learn from it.

It may be a little bit of fear, a little bit of concern about the unknown or a natural instinct we all have, to protect the good work we have done and, when we need help, it often seems best to deal with things internally. So, when it came to planning our study on local government scrutiny we were keen to break this cycle, take people outside their comfort zone and facilitate some ‘real-time’ comparisons.

For us the approach could be said to be innovative when compared with a traditional audit. From the start we involved councils in not only evaluating and learning about their own scrutiny arrangements and the benefits of constructive challenge, but also in ‘live’ peer reviews of their fellow councils and scrutineers.

So what is a peer review and how did we use it?

Many of us will be familiar with peer reviews, essentially an evaluation of work by people of similar competence – an external audit if you like. In this case we used the peer review as a means of supporting some shared learning. Instead of just focussing inwards, the opportunity to take the pressure off and look at how others are performing was a really useful exercise.

Not only did this present the peer teams, comprising scrutiny members and officers, with a chance to see how other councils operate their scrutiny, but also gave them an environment for some reflection on their own ways of working.

For some it was reassuring that they are heading in the right direction and for others there was a renewed urgency to up their game and embed their learning.

How have the councils benefitted from being part of this study?

The main thing that all the councils taking part got from this experience, besides contributing to a national review, was a renewed enthusiasm for scrutiny and tools to become more effective at it.

Being part of the study enabled councils to develop the skills to evaluate their own performance, the opportunity to share knowledge, build and strengthen relationships and, importantly, identify new opportunities for working with other councils and partners.

So what can we learn from each other?

It’s always important to recognise the need for an external voice when working on any project and all those who took part in this study certainly benefitted from outside views. By welcoming in their peers, the councils were able to not only get a fresh perspective on how they approached scrutiny, but also other aspects of council work.  The relationships developed here have enabled the councils to open up dialogues about a host of other work too and will have benefits that stretch long beyond this project.

The benefits of comparing our organisations with others always outweigh the negatives and, by learning to share in our successes as well as our failures, we can all learn a great deal from each other. All we need to do is open the door.

About the author: 

Huw Rees is the Wales Audit Office’s Local Government Manager with responsibility for developing audit and assessment approaches for local government performance audit. Huw has 13 years’ experience of working in audit and inspection bodies dating back to 2000 when he was appointed as one of the first best value

Do you have examples of how useful learning from your peers has benefitted your organisation Let us know either in the comments below or via email at good.practice@wao.gov.uk

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