It is important that councillors that access to information but it is equally important there is an awareness of the impact this can have on the volume of work involved for council staff.
Over the past year, the Inspectorate has observed several examples of:
- councillors submitting numerous requests for information that has unclear benefit to the full council group
- staff or the CEO refusing requests for information that should be made available
- councillors pressuring staff to provide sensitive or commercial-in-confidence material they are not entitled to
- complaints being made about related activities to the Inspectorate
While complaints about unfair process are sometimes warranted, the Inspectorate encourages the use of tools that promote transparent sharing of information in its dealings with councils.
Geelong City Council instituted a councillor portal (pictured below) before the return of councillors in November 2017 as the key communication tool between councillors and the organisation.
Rebecca Leonard, Director Governance, Strategy and Performance, said the councillor portal allows councillors to submit requests on behalf of the community, while protecting them from influencing the outcome and protecting staff from being influenced.
“All councillor requests are visible for all councillors and they have the ability to track the status of their request, add comments and have a key contact,” she said.
“The councillor is kept informed but is not part of the decision making process for operational matters.”
Since the return of council in 2018, there have been more than 2500 requests submitted by councillors at an average of more than 100 requests per month.
In 2018, Surf Coast established clear protocols about councillor and staff interactions on requests for information and following from Geelong’s example, recently moved communications from being email-based to an online portal with a range of features:
- Web-based submission by councillors to which they can also attach photos, emails, documents
- Requests are visible to all councillors, unless the CEO determines that they are private or confidential matters
- Councillors can filter the request by who submitted it, and if the request is open or closed, so it is easy to find previous correspondence
- Councillors can also source meeting agendas and minutes, forms, policies, communications and other updates on the portal
Surf Coast Governance and Infrastructure General Manager Anne Howard said: “Effective interactions between councillors and staff are essential to a well-functioning council. Surf Coast councillors knew that their neighbours at Geelong had a portal-based system and were keen to move to something similar.”
For more information on Geelong’s information portal, contact Rebecca Leonard at firstname.lastname@example.org