Building trust in local government

David Thompson

David Thompson, Manager of Governance, Boroondara City Council

David Thompson has more than 18 years’ experience in senior leadership roles within local government, and holds tertiary qualifications in law, commerce, business, personnel and industrial relations, and a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment. He is also a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

Mr Thompson is currently the Manager of Governance at Boroondara City Council. He was attracted to governance in local government because he wanted to make a significant contribution to improving people’s lives. He believes that when local government practices good governance, communities are more connected and engaged, better services are provided and there is a more effective use of tax payer funded resources. Good governance produces better outcomes for the community.

In this issue of IBAC Insights, Mr Thompson shares his thoughts on integrity, conflicts of interest and building trust in local government.

Councils exist to serve their communities. They are entrusted with a range of decision making powers so they can govern in the best interests of their communities. Scrutiny of local government is important and should be welcomed.

In the 25 years I have held roles serving the community, I have seen a decline in trust towards local councils. In my view, among the factors causing a decline in trust of local government is the speed information travels in the current age of the 24-hour news cycle and social media. For example, disgruntled residents can share their disapproval of a council’s decision at the click of a keyboard. Although satisfied residents could do the same, bad news tends to spread faster than good, so the community is more likely to read about the negative stories relating to local government. This increases the community’s expectation of transparency in council decision making processes – and rightly so.

Trust is closely linked to integrity, so this decline in trust presents some real challenges for local councils in ensuring they operate with integrity and gaining back the trust of their communities.

Councils need to become more transparent in their decision making processes and better at communicating the great work they do. This helps to rebuild trust with their communities. At Boroondara City Council we are working towards enhancing our online services for our community, placing the customer at the centre of everything we do with a focus on making Council more efficient and effective. Our Council is also building a presence on social media networks to tell our stories in real time, more effectively connecting us with our constituents and also building the profile of Boroondara City Council.

Dealing with conflicts of interest

Transparency is especially important when it comes to managing conflicts of interest of councillors and council employees. Whether real or perceived, conflicts of interest are potentially damaging to the integrity of local councils and community trust. Councillors, in particular, are likely to have strong community ties and be well known in their constituency, for example they may be local business owners. It’s these connections that often help them represent the views of their communities. However, the community needs to be confident the private interests of councillors do not affect their decision making and they do not use their position for personal benefit. However, if conflicts of interest are managed transparently the risk of them impacting on council decisions or damaging community trust can be reduced.

Currently, councillors are required to identify and disclose their conflicts of interest as they arise under the Local Government Act 1989. Council officers can act as sounding board for councillors, providing a different perspectives on conflict issues. However, it is important to note in the local government context a council officer can provide guidance to councillors on whether they have a conflict of interest, but they cannot make the decision for them. No matter what guidance a councillor receives, legally they remain responsible for their own actions.

Building a culture of speaking out

Improving transparency and managing conflicts of interest are only part of the solution to improving trust in local government. Building a culture of speaking out is vital in maintaining organisational integrity. 

At Boroondara City Council, we work hard to instil a culture where employees feel able to speak out if they see something that is not right. We do this through training as well as providing resources and contacts for employees to engage with. We have devoted time and energy to raising awareness of fraud and prevention and how to manage risk in line with our Council’s risk management process.

All new staff undergo mandatory training on fraud and corruption, with periodic refreshers for existing staff. The training covers what constitutes corrupt conduct, how to address corrupt conduct, who to speak to if corrupt conduct is suspected, protections afforded to ‘whistleblowers’, available council policies and procedures relating to detection and reporting of corrupt conduct, and what unethical behaviours consist of (implicit and explicit). The Staff Code of Conduct module, which is also mandatory for new staff and circulated periodically to existing staff to complete, details what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the workplace.

The training is supported by range of information on our intranet, such as best practice guidelines and applicable council policies and procedures. This content is also publically available through our Council’s website, providing transparency for our constituents. 

Additionally, I am our Council’s Protected Disclosure Coordinator, a role we actively promote so staff know who to contact to get help in understanding the guidelines around the protected disclosures. Our open door policy also encourages colleagues to approach me for guidance on issues they may have. This policy increases my involvement with staff and it strengthens loyalty, commitment and confidence between colleagues.

Finally, we are active participants in IBAC’s Protected Disclosure Community of Practice (PD CoP). The PD CoP helps me to establish relationships with my local government colleagues, professionals in the public sector, and enables networking and information exchange.  Our regular meetings where we discuss issues, ideas and trends, and learn from the experiences and thoughts of others adds value to my role at Council.

Mitigating the risks of corruption

Managing conflicts of interest and building a culture of speaking up will go a long way towards building corruption resistance in local government. As I previously touched on, transparency of council decisions and policies are vitally important for integrity and trust, but also for mitigating corruption risks. For example, undertaking decision making in open council or committee meetings relating to the awarding of contracts and tenders.

Furthermore, embedding risk frameworks into tender evaluation processes and embedding set criteria and opportunities for declarations from the onset are important strategies to mitigate corruption risks. Risk frameworks are the set of components that provide the foundation and organisational arrangements for designing, implementing, monitoring, reviewing and continually improving risk management throughout the organisation. Ongoing training and development is essential for officers and councillors, including case studies where these issues have occurred and raising awareness of publications from IBAC and other peak bodies on best practice guidelines.

Leading by example

It is essential for leadership teams to lead by example. We cannot enforce zero tolerance of poor behaviours without demonstrating a high degree of integrity at the leadership levels.

As leaders we need to have issues of integrity and ethical behaviours at the top of mind, and be prepared to have the hard conversations and call out poor behaviour at every instance.

Operationally this means having a sound integrity framework setup, where reporting is encouraged and whistleblowing is cultivated. One way to achieve this is by embedding reporting of corrupt conduct within position descriptions and senior officer contracts.

Implementing mandatory integrity training sessions for senior staff will ensure they are aware of their roles and responsibilities in leading ethical organisations. Furthermore, engaging the expertise of integrity agencies such as IBAC, the Victorian Ombudsman and the Local Government Inspectorate, to assist in staff education and support will help normalise conversations about integrity issues.

Leadership teams can build on the framework to foster a culture of integrity through regular open and candid discussions with their staff about issues faced within the organisation, and identify opportunities to learn from how issues were handled and resolved.

Earning the trust of our communities by improving transparency and having strong ethical leadership will improve the relationship between councils and their constituents, benefitting the whole community.

Read more in IBAC Insights Issue 19