independent

Friday 17 August 2018

Wexford County Council defends its transparency role

Wexford County Council performed poorly in integrity study

Tony Larkin, deputy chief executive
Tony Larkin, deputy chief executive

Maria Pepper

Wexford County Council has responded to a report by Transparency International Ireland (TI) which ranked it second last in a national integrity list of the country's local authorities.

The index of 31 local authorities was based on three criteria - Transparency, Accountability and Ethics and Wexford County Council came in 30th place ahead of Galway County Council with seven points out of 30, representing an overall score of 23% compared with Galway City Council at the top of the list with 21 points or 70%.

TI carried out research into local government in Ireland from July 2017 to February 2018l. The majority of the information for the study was found on council websites while phone calls to local authority and freedom of information requests were also used. An email was sent to each council containing questions.

In a statement of reaction quickly issued after the report was released, Wexford County Council defended its position and said it has a commitment to excellent customer service and public accountability and prides itself on being transparent and accountable.

'We communicate well with our citizens through a wide variety of channels including in person, by telephone, by email, in writing, through our website and through social media', it said.

The TI report highlighted a number of shortcomings in the Council's website in terms of its communications with the public and said while much of the information is available in hard copy format, it should also be available online or where it is online, it should be published there in a more timely manner.

The Council lost marks in relation to Transparency in areas such as failing to publish minutes of meetings online in a timely manner; failing to publish submissions on planning applications; not publishing adequate details of councillor expenses, payments, donations and attendances; not publishing comprehensive information on its procurement processes and not publishing the Chief Executive's diary online.

In the Accountability category, it fell down in areas including that it did not provide a decision on Freedom of Information requests within four weeks; not publishing annual reports on protected disclosures; the latest local authority annual report posted being from 2014 and not being fully responsive to requests from Transparency International Ireland.

In relation to Ethics, TI said the Register of Interests declarations for council members was out of date although the format was commended; the local authority does not publish online a risk management or alert plan, addressing corruption and fraud risks and does not report that it takes a proactive role in preventing employees from taking on certain positions in the private sector, whether during or following employment.

'Wexford County Council readily acknowledges these deficiencies and welcomes the report as a means of improving this aspect of our public engagement and communication', the statement continued.

'However, to link these shortcomings with the integrity, transparency and accountability of Wexford County Council is highly unfair and unwarranted. It is particularly misleading to do so given that much of the report is based on information which is factually incorrect. In addition, the report contains no acknowledgement of the fact that many of the identified deficiencies have already been remedied by Wexford County Council since the TI research was undertaken'.

The Council pointed out that all local authorities operate in a 'highly regulated environment governed by legislation'.

'In addition, our elected members have a statutory role in overseeing policy and delivery of services. Council meetings are held in public where key reports, including Budgets, end-of-year financial reports and capital accounts are presented for consideration. These reports are also published online'.

The statement pointed out that all local authorities have their own internal audit function and are independently audited by the Local Government Audit Service (Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government) with all these reports published online by each council.

It cited independently-chaired Audit Committees as another example of public engagement and oversight and said these are in place in all authorities, overseeing financial activities, and also public consultation processes which take place for a wide range of operational and policy matters.

'The latest Performance Indicators Report (2016) published by the National Oversight and Audit Commission (NOAC) in January 2018 found that together Ireland's 31 local authorities have over 1.16 million social media followers (Twitter and Facebook) and 59 million website page views. As an example of Wexford County Council's engagement in Twitter, we received more than 500,000 impressions on our Twitter account during the recent Storm Emma severe weather event', the Council statement continued. It added that Wexford County Council welcomes the TI report as a means of raising awareness of local authority services and suggesting ways to improve communications with customers, particularly in relation to the timeliness of publishing information on its website. 'With this in mind, and in cooperation with the County & City Managers' Association (CCMA), Wexford County Council plans to review the TI report and to explore any constructive suggestions to help improve our services, our levels of public engagement and our communication channels.'

Wexford County Council Deputy Chief Executive Tony Larkin said customer service and information provision are key to the local authority's remit in providing essential public services. 'We are committed to good communications and providing accurate up-to-date information to the public and we now communicate with the public largely on Twitter and Facebook as well as by telephone, in person, written correspondence and through our websites.'

'Funding for local authorities is primarily concentrated on delivering essential activities like managing severe weather events, roads maintenance and housing, as well as generating jobs and tourism and enhancing our communities through libraries, playing pitches, parks and leisure facilities. Like many other organisations, we would welcome more people, more expertise and more funding for communications but we have to be responsible in how we manage public funds, and that means prioritising delivery of essential services', he said. One of the most interesting findings, according to TI, is the relationship between how Councils scored and the proportion of women in senior management. A higher proportion of women in senior management roles was strongly linked to better systems and practices to promote integrity. Transparency International Ireland which is the Irish chapter of a worldwide movement against corruption said local authorities need to publish much more information on their websites; they need to ensure they have up-to-date corruption prevention and investigation procedures; and they need to more proactively publish information on development plans and planning decisions. It said it hopes the latest study will encourage local authorities to promote greater transparency and good governance.

 

National integrity list of local authorities

Rank/council/score

1 Galway city council 70%

2 Fingal county council 63%

2 South Dublin county council 63%

4 Dublin city council 60%

4 Monaghan county council 60%

6 Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown 57%

6 Laois county council 57%

6 Meath county council 57%

9 Kerry county council 53%

9 Kildare county council 53%

11 Clare county council 50%

11 Cork city council 50%

11 Limerick city and co council 50%

11 Roscommon county council 50%

11 Tipperary county council 50%

16 Leitrim county council 47%

17 Donegal county council 43%

17 Longford county council 43%

19 Cavan county council 40%

19 Louth county council 40%

19 Mayo county council 40%

19 Sligo county council 40%

19 Wicklow county council 40%

24 Cork county council 37%

24 Kilkenny county council 37%

24 Westmeath county council 37%

27 Carlow county council 33%

28 Offaly county council 30%

28 Waterford city & co council 30%

30 Wexford county council 23%

31 Galway county council 17%

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