I have just returned, tired but happy, from participating as a team member in a planning peer review at Bromsgrove district council. I was lucky enough to be part of a dynamic, positive and hugely experienced team of member and officer peers and IDeA staff and found the whole experience extremely positive. This experience has prompted me to consider the huge benefits that can be drawn from the peer review process, which is after all one of the IDeA’s unique selling points. Peers in this context are unique being of the sector, for the sector. This means that generally there is no animosity or resentment directed toward them during the course of a review and officers and members alike open up in a genuine way – something that I think rarely happens at inspection, or indeed during other “critical friend” opportunities such as the PINS frontloading visits.
So what constitutes an effective peer review team? In my opinion it is the subtle balance of strong leadership, experience, diplomacy, empathy and good judgment (oh, and humour!). The request for a review comes from the authority themselves, via either members or officers, however it is imperative to remember that some groups or individuals will undoubtedly feel highly sensitive and wary of your visit and may view it as a direct inspection of their own performance. You, as a member of the review panel, need to remain objective, acting as the arbiter considering all of the facts and anecdotal evidence that you are presented with (and also that which you dig out yourself!!) during the course of the review with due care and attention. As a member of the review panel you can’t afford to let personalities or opinion sway you from the facts. Try to bear in this in mind and you will produce a review summary that is fair, unbiased and honest.
So what is the point of a peer review? It helps an authority to see the wood for the trees, a way out of the quagmire – should they choose to take up the recommendations made in the review report. Authorities can become so entrenched in their views unable to see that there is always another way to tackle things, always another perspective to consider (something that I have been reminded of myself during the course of this recent review!!) but sometimes it just takes an outsider to give a fresh perspective!