The 2020 Act requires the CEO to publish a summary of personal interests, which improves transparency and accountability of the interests return process. This allows the public, integrity agencies and other stakeholders to easily see the personal interests of specified persons and reveals potential conflicts of interest. The publication of the summary on a council’s website also improves transparency in the digital age, removing the need to write to ask permission to view the register in person.
The 2020 Act specifies that the following persons need to complete a personal interests return:
- delegated committee members
- chief executive officers
- council staff who have a statutory or delegated power, duty and function who have been nominated by the CEO.
The new requirement to publish summaries of personal interests allowed the Inspectorate to conduct a high-level assessment of compliance with the new legislation. We reviewed all 79 councils’ websites in August 2021 to access the summaries.
It has been nearly a year since the 2020 Act came into force and the Inspectorate would have expected all councils to have published on their website:
- a summary of initial returns which are lodged within 30 days of appointment (for nominated officers and delegated committee members) or affirmation or oath (for councillors) which could have been published alongside or been superseded by
- a summary of the biannual returns which were to have been submitted between 1 March and 31 March 2021.
The existing legislation does not stipulate the timeframe for when councils must publish the summaries, nor does it provide commentary in regards to whether councils are required to publish more than one summary on their website at a time. However, it does state that the CEO must publish a summary of the interests disclosed in the ‘last personal interests return’. It also does not mandate the exact format in which the summaries are to be published.23
Our review found that:
- some councils had not published any summaries
- some councils had only published summaries of the initial returns but not the biannual returns
- one council published summaries for councillors but no staff
- there was a wide variation in the number of staff that were required to complete returns
- the format of the summaries varied greatly, making them difficult to compare.
Significantly, 3 councils did not have any personal interests return summaries on their websites at all and referenced the old legislation. These councils were:
- Bass Coast
- Hobsons Bay
This oversight demonstrates poor governance, or a misunderstanding of requirements, and we would have anticipated seeing better governance practices.
Our review also identified 13 councils which had only published the initial return in December 2020 and had failed to publish a summary of their biannual personal interests returns. These councils were:
- Central Goldfields
- Macedon Ranges
- Mount Alexander
- Southern Grampians
Currently, the Local Government Act does not mandate when the summary should be published. Nor does the LGV guidance document provide any suggested timeframe. This leaves it up to the council’s discretion when the summaries are published.
Most councils publish their summary shortly after the end of the prescribed period. However, the failure of these 13 councils to publish the summaries 5 months after the first biannual personal interests returns were due is concerning and highlights the clear need for a deadline to be legislated.
While most councils published their first biannual returns summary within a few weeks of the 31 March deadline, some councils published the summary more than 100 days after the summary period ended. In several cases, it appears that these councils had updated and republished summaries where new staff were appointed. This practice shows that some councils are being very transparent and accountable to their communities.
One further discrepancy between summaries reviewed was in relation to the number of nominated officers submitting interests returns for each council. A staff member is appointed as a nominated officer if they hold a statutory or delegated power, duty or function; and they are nominated by the CEO because of the power, duty or function.
However, the formal appointment process remains at the discretion of the CEO. At one end of the spectrum, some councils only nominate a few officers’ interests while at the other end of the scale, Casey nominated 333 council officers.24
Benalla and Dandenong only published the personal interests of councillors in their summaries. Dandenong advised in late October – after this report was published - that the summary for its CEO and other nominated officers was publicly available on its website but this was not found in our original review.
Meanwhile, another two councils (Knox and Manningham) only included the personal interests of councillors and the CEO.
The 5 councils with the most non-councillors who lodged personal interests returns (in March 2021 summaries) were:
|Number of returns
We found that some CEOs only nominated their executive teams while others nominated every council staff member with the authority to spend council funds.
There was also a lot of variation in what the summaries were called, how they were presented and where they could be found on council websites. Simple searches did not reveal summaries for many councils, often requiring multiple searches to locate the information. Some summaries were 50-page spreadsheets which were uploaded as PDFs and some summaries were listed as individual web pages for each person.
The radically different ways in which the information is uploaded and presented makes oversight and comparison difficult for integrity agencies and other interested parties.
The presentation of consistent summaries which are easy to compare is vital to ensure transparency and keep councils accountable.
To facilitate increased transparency and consistency across the sector, it is our position that councils be required to retain previous summaries on their website for the duration of the council term.
1. The Local Government Act 2020 should be amended to:
- include a deadline for the publication of the summary on the council website after the end of the prescribed period
- require councils to have personal interests summaries available online for the duration of the council term.
2. The Local Government Act 2020 and Local Government (Governance and Integrity) Regulations 2020 should be amended to make it mandatory for CEOs to use a form in a Schedule to the Regulations when creating a summary of personal interests to ensure consistency across the local government sector.
3. Local Government Victoria should provide improved guidance to councils regarding:
- how to determine which staff should qualify as nominated officers who are required to submit a personal interests return
- a standard approach to compiling and
- presenting summaries on their websites, to assist comparison across councils.