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Council Matters

In viewing the archived record of last Tuesday’s meeting I saw that, but for the first agenda item, it was just another meeting. It was business as usual; though it must be said that the agenda included items of significance, including: the draft Delivery Plan and the draft Operational Plan; and the draft Disability Inclusion Action Plan – all approved for public exhibition, with submissions being received up until 6 June.

Details on making submissions can be found on council’s website. In fact, if you are keen to have a say on the policies that council adopts – before they are adopted – then you ought to keep an eye on the hyperlink I have just provided. As I have said before, there are truckloads of policies currently being reviewed and put out for public comment, meeting after meeting, and it can be all too easy to be blinded by this volume of traffic, and fail to see policies that have significance for you, and thereby miss the opportunity to comment on them. The gallery and those watching the webcast heard Councillor McGinlay remind people to take this opportunity, to have a say on council’s policies.

A lack of transparency - a chronic condition

As with our own health, the state of health of an organisation will most easily be evidenced by the presence or absence of symptoms of illness. And when the same symptoms of illness constantly recur, we describe the condition as chronic.

So it is, in my experience at least, with our council and the seemingly impossible task of routinely being transparent and telling it as it is – especially at those times when one would rather keep it quite. I am certainly not applying a broad brush here and painting all (senior) staff with that comment but for years now I have seen too many instances of legislation, policies and guidelines misinterpreted and misapplied – either through ignorance or by design - in order to support a preferred, pre-determined position or strategy; or, as I have said before, to simply ‘cover arse’.

This symptom of ill-health as far as our council is concerned has been most evident in the application – or misapplication – of the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (GIPA). Our council simply doesn’t get what this act is about. It is a chronic, but treatable condition. [A description of the treatment is best left for another occasion.] As a reminder to all, the NSW Ombudsman has this to say on GIPA:

One of the purposes of the GIPA Act is to maintain and advance a system of responsible and representative democratic government that is open, accountable, fair and effective. The stated object of the GIPA Act is to open government information by authorising and encouraging the proactive public release by agencies, and giving members of the public an enforceable right of access to information that has not been proactively released. Release of information is to be restricted only when there is an overriding public interest against disclosure. (excerpt from page 92 of the Ombudsman’s publication Good conduct and administrative practice – Guidelines for state and local government, March 2017)

And now, we turn to the first item on Tuesday’s agenda, which is very much related to the chronic condition just described – the inherent and far too frequent unwillingness to provide information, except that which may be described as uncontentious or unavoidable.

It was a Mayoral Report on Customer Service Benchmark Results. In the last Council Matters, I referred to this item as one worthy of particular attention – primarily because I had no idea that there was a need for council’s participation in such a program and because of the costs involved.

I said that: In the 21 years that I have visited the council front desk I have always found the staff to be absolutely first class: smiling, pleasant and very helpful. I had no idea that there was a measurable need for improvement but, as a believer in the need for constant improvement, I suppose I am pleased to hear that the GM signed the ESC up to CSBA Mystery Shopping Benchmarking Program, in 2014. Especially given that, as we have been advised in this mayoral report, the staff have achieved first place in the quarterly competition conducted by CSBA: a genuine congratulations to them all!

You will see from the link I have provided above that there is a potential total cost of about $12,000 (per annum?) to participate in the program but I assume that whatever has been and is being spent on participation in the program, is worth it; that there has been some sort of cost/benefit analysis done before entering into the program.

The newsletters issued by CSBA provide further information on the program.

Since then, because of the revealed costs of council’s participation in this CSBA Mystery Shopping Benchmarking Program, there has been a flood of critical comment posted to The Beagle. Though, in scanning the postings I see that The Beagle has been honoured by the articulate views of a contributor long-missing (as far as The Beagle is concerned), who in apparently defending council in this matter, sarcastically refers to the protests of “foul Deception” against the non-disclosure of the costs and the misrepresentation of council’s place in the local government sector. But sarcasm falls flat here - no matter how clever.

The central question is why would the costs have been excluded from the report? Either the exclusion was an oversight or it was deliberate. If deliberate it could have either been because the matter of costs was seen as unimportant or that any mention of them would spoil what would otherwise be a good-news story. In either case, the exclusion of the costs from the report warrants criticism, if not condemnation.

But for Councillor McGinlay, the public would not have known anything about the costs. Again, he stands alone in the chamber in his pursuit of transparency and accountability. During last year’s council election campaign, other candidates claimed their commitment to opening council up but, instead, with the exception of possibly one other councillor, we have not seen any demonstration at all of those commitments.

I would have expected to hear other councillors express concern that the vitally important information on costs had been missing from the report. They had plenty of opportunity to express such concerns, but, as far as we know, did not take it. Each was made aware of the contents of the Mayoral Report one week earlier, when it would have been discussed with them at their regular briefing by staff. And there would have been a further opportunity to take it up at the pre-meeting briefing, conducted to allow for last minute questions and to hopefully avoid awkward questions during the meeting. But it was Councillor McGinlay, alone, who did what every councillor there should have insisted on – full disclosure.

The costs, we were told at the meeting, amount to $46,000 a year, with something like $127,000 having been spent on the program so far – since council commenced participation in 2014. Some of the unit costs that go into making up this yearly figure, are shown on page 2 of the first-mentioned link, above, repeated here for convenience. You will see, for example, that the costs associated with a phone call or an email is $165! Presumably, this has been judged as value for money and so it would be good to hear from our representatives on how such a judgement was arrived at and whether they support it.

There is no question that the costs should have been included in the report. After all, it is ratepayers’ money that is being spent on an activity the need for which is very questionable – unlike the need for at least one dog recreational area in Batemans Bay, which is very much needed, but for which, so far, money cannot be found.

Our customer service staff do a superlative job and, as far as I am concerned, have done so for many years, well before this program was ‘introduced’. And why on earth can’t this pursuit of excellence in service delivery be undertaken in-house?

Given that pursuant to section 377 (1) (g) of the Local Government Act 1993, the functions that may be delegated to the general manager by the governing body must not include “the voting of money for expenditure on its works, services or operations”, I can only assume that at some time in the past, the $46,000 per year expenditure was approved by council. It would be interesting to know when that was and where we might find the figure in amongst the financial data provided within the audited statements. I have no doubt that it is there somewhere – as it must be – but I don’t have the time to go on a search.

As well as the report failing to declare the costs of the program, we see that it claims that “Eurobodalla Shire Council has been placed first in Australia’s local government sector for its customer service ‘Mystery Shopping Benchmark Program’.” And we see that council’s media release advises us that “Council has been judged the top council in Australia for customer service general enquiries in a quarterly national benchmarking report.”

We now know that these statements are simply false. In the claim of first place as expressed in the report, one could possibly, but desperately, argue that the claim relates just to the Mystery Shopping Benchmark Program. In fact, I wonder if this tenuous thinking lay behind this form of words. But the clear message delivered to the reader is that our council was placed first in all of Australia.

We have been given to understand that something like 60 councils are involved in the program in question - though there is no mention of this in the report and so one would reasonably assume that the results apply Australia wide. But according to the Australian Local Government Association, there are 560 local government bodies and 537 local government councils in Australia.

The word “deception” is indeed a strong word and one not to be used lightly and so I will refrain and describe these claims, as worded, while unquestionably false, as having not been carefully thought through. The result, though, is that the reader is misled – even if inadvertently. Council may therefore be of a mind to clarify the claims made.

And finally on this issue – for the time being – it occurred to me that but for the inclusion of the recommendation in the report “THAT Council congratulate the General Manager”, this sort of report would normally be one presented by the general manager. In this case, while the report has clearly been composed by the GM – as evidenced by reliance on her response to Councillor Nathan’s questions on the program – it was appropriate that it be assigned to the mayor, for reasons of protocol. In other words, I do not in fact see it as a report by the mayor but, rather, as a report by proxy, by the mayor: one delivered on behalf of the general manager.

#PeterCormick #Opinion #Council #LocalStateFederal

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