By Kath Murray

Amidst the ongoing heat and noise around Police Scotland, it is striking to note that the same degree of attention has not been extended to the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), the main oversight body, at least not in a detailed or rigorous way.

Branded weak by dint of a turf war in its early days, the uninspiring performance of the authority almost seems to have been taken for granted. While criticism directed at Police Scotland rapidly gathered momentum, this was not true for the SPA. Rather, critical voices tended to coalesce around the "toothless" moniker. In this way, it might be argued that the authority has been let off the hook.

Still, the departure of Chief Constable Sir Stephen House and SPA chairman Vic Emery should signal a clean break for Scottish policing. A new chairman was appointed for the authority yesterday. Andrew Flanagan is an accountant with experience in the media, NHS and running a major children’s charity but not in policing. With no previous association with the SPA, he represents a new broom.This is reinforced by the fact that many board members will be required to seek reappointment in the coming year.

As Scottish policing moves into a new phase with fresh faces at the helm, it is worth considering how the SPA might sharpen its teeth.

First, greater distance is required between the authority, Police Scotland and the Scottish Government. The "critical friend" relationship with Police Scotland has reflected badly on the authority. The independence of the SPA has also been weakened by Scottish Government intervention whereby a lack of decisive action at times of crisis has prompted ministers to step in, for instance in relation to armed policing or the M9 crash.

On the one hand, this has deflected attention away from the SPA onto the Scottish Government; on the other, it has reinforced the view of the authority as toothless, in effect delivering an own goal.

The SPA is sandwiched between two sets of powerful vested interests that at times overlap. The mutually defensive reaction by Police Scotland and the Scottish Government to the stop-and-search controversy is a case in point. This situation is exacerbated by the small circles in which Scottish policing and politics operate. Against this overly-chummy backdrop, the authority needs to stand its ground.

Secondly, the board is arguably too large. As a general rule, larger boards tend to be less efficient. The present board of 14 members means that the weight of responsibility placed upon individuals is diluted. It also means that the authority also lacks a clear voice.

For instance, the SNPs commitment to 17,234 officers has been questioned by board members but not in a way that might be described as challenging or confident. The savings made by a leaner board would be better utilized in an analytical capacity, providing members with the necessary expertise and detailed knowledge to carry out its scrutiny function.

This requires access to consistent, high quality trend data. At present the SPA is provided with snapshot figures, measured against the same period in the previous year. These data lack depth, and are limited in terms of assessing performance or evaluating policy decisions.

Thirdly, public board meetings should address matters of public interest and serve to demonstrate the scrutiny function of the authority. Public board meetings have acquired almost legendary status in terms of tedium. Public meetings should not be used to approve the purchase agreement for the supply of police trousers, as happened earlier this year.

The emphasis needs to be squarely placed on scrutinising the performance of Police Scotland and dissecting police decision-making, for instance the rationales for the targets underpinning the annual policing plan.

This requires sharp questioning from board members as well as the expertise and assurance to drill into the sometimes ambiguous responses provided by police executives.

The appointment of a new chairman should drive the authority to deliver its designated function as an independent watchdog. The overarching structure is, theoretically, in place for this to happen but the devil is in the detail.

It will, I think, require more breathing room and less chumminess, the re-allocation of resources away from a top-heavy board towards the development of expert knowledge, and boldness on the part of board members and the chairman to make this happen.

Kath Murray is the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research Fellow in the School of Law at the University of Edinburgh.