Almost 25% of all jurisdictional approaches to the Victorian Ombudsman are about local government. Members of the public who complain to the office sometimes express concern that decisions are being made ‘behind closed doors’ or ‘in secret’, presenting this as evidence to support their concerns.
The level of concern shown in these complaints is readily understood by taking into account the role of the 79 councils under the Local Government Act. They provide essential services to their communities across areas such as health, planning and building control, economic development, waste management, parks and libraries. They are also businesses employing over 50,000 people which are collectively responsible for billions of dollars of public spending, infrastructure and assets each year.
More so than at the state and federal level of government, local councils provide the opportunity for citizens to influence the decisions that affect their lives and communities. Transparent decision making therefore supports accountability, encourages high performance and builds public confidence in councils and their processes. Individuals will not always agree with their council’s decisions, but transparent decision making allows them to understand their council’s reasoning and it can address any suspicions of impropriety.
In September 2015 the government announced its intention to review the Local Government Act; this investigation is intended to inform the aspects of that review which relate to transparency.
The investigation considered councils’ decision making in the context of their obligations under the Local Government Act, as well as their local laws and policies. We surveyed each of the 79 councils about the transparency of their decision making, then selected 12 councils across metropolitan, regional and rural Victoria for closer examination.