Airedale Terrier or Lapdog?

John Cade

The recent publication of Grant Thornton’s report on “Lessons from recent Public Interest Reports” highlighting the lack of sound scrutiny in certain Councils reminded me of the question that was circulating at the time of the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

“What’s the difference between a non-executive director and a supermarket trolley?”

Answer: “It’s the supermarket trolley that has a mind of its own.”

The Grant Thornton report makes the point that arguments can be made for and against different governance models, but their effectiveness, as demonstrated by recent Public Interest Report cases, is less about the system of governance and more about how it operates, who operates it and how willing it is to accept scrutiny and challenge. 

Unfortunately, this is not a new revelation and the report does not make any specific recommendations about scrutiny.

Having worked for some of my career in Edinburgh and conscious of how the forthcoming Scottish Parliament elections might affect the UK, I have been taking an interest in the recent cross-party Scottish Parliamentary Committee investigation into the issues raised by the previous SNP Leader, Alex Salmond.  As I write, it has just been leaked that the committee has voted by 5 to 4 that Nicola Sturgeon misled the committee on one particular matter.

What struck me in looking at the Committee sessions was the contrast between the often imposing evidence given by both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon (the latter having a marathon 8-hour session) and the invariably partisan questioning by the Committee.  The SNP members frequently feeding friendly points to Nicola Sturgeon to build her response and the Opposition Members invariably revealing their own pre-conceived opinions.

“Isn’t this inevitable?”, I hear you say. 

Perhaps, but there are also many examples, cited by the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny, of where scrutiny has and does effectively challenge the Executive, but this is less newsworthy. In writing this short blog, I just hope that Council Leaders will recognise the correlation between good scrutiny and good governance and at their Annual General Meetings, following the May elections, appoint/enable not a lapdog to chair the function, but an Airedale terrier (“an alert and energetic breed, not aggressive but fearless” – according to Wikipedia)

Photo by Zuni1520 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

John Cade is an INLOGOV associate and former senior local government officer. His interests relate to governance arrangements with a particular focus on relationships and developing trust between Executives, Chairs and Scrutiny Members.

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