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  • Writer's pictureJenna Williams

Councillors Share their Feedback: The Importance of Transparency in the Council Meeting Process

In our latest Insights Report, Councillor Perspectives on the Council Meeting Process, we asked 40 councillors how they felt about council meetings and what improvements would support them most in their role.  


When it came to concerns around transparency, the findings were revealing, with 7 out of 10 respondents expressing reservations about the transparency of council proceedings. This sentiment highlights a pressing need for improvements in transparency across local government organisations. 


Here is a breakdown of the insights gathered around transparency, as well as some feedback provided directly from respondents. You can download a full copy of the report here.


 

1. Political Posturing Prevents Meaningful Debate 

One of the most concerning issues highlighted in our research is the pervasive nature of political posturing within council chambers. Councillors expressed deep-seated concerns about peers bending rules and leveraging emotions to sway decisions, thereby significantly impeding open and transparent communication. This phenomenon underscores the gravity of the situation and the necessity for genuine and respectful debate free from political motivations. 


“Councillors will use whatever is at their disposal, governance rules, rudimentary NLP, emotions, etc, to try and get their way in the chamber. They're not there to favour one person; they're there in the best interests of the municipal district; the minute they don’t do it, they're not doing their jobs.” Councillor, Victoria 

2. Evasive, Fearful Responses from Operations Impedes Quality Decision-Making 

Participants underscored the crucial importance of honest and straightforward responses from governance officers and senior management. Fear of retribution or overly technical answers can severely hinder the decision-making process, depriving councillors of the necessary information to make informed choices. There is a strong collective call for unbiased and transparent communication channels within council operations, emphasising the necessity for fair and open dialogue. 


“Nobody likes an equivocal or wishy-washy answer. I like clear, concise answers even if they upset the questioner because certain councillors get grumpy. I’m a nice councillor, I don’t get upset. The noisy councillors get special treatment. That annoys me.” – Councillor, Victoria 

 

3. Governance is Not Sufficiently Empowered by The System to Challenge It 

Another prevalent sentiment among respondents is the perceived lack of empowerment within governance structures. Staff desire a more supportive system that enables them to challenge the status quo without fear of repercussions. This would foster an environment conducive to democracy and inclusive decision-making processes. 


“Those that have power who are in that corporate governance role, feel powerless themselves to challenge or to ask those questions, to challenge the system as it is. That's really concerning.” – Councillor, New South Wales 

 

4. Meetings Do not Encourage Inclusive Public Engagement 

Accessibility to council proceedings emerged as a significant concern, with respondents expressing frustration over barriers to inclusive civic engagement. Current systems often favour insiders and English-speaking individuals, excluding diverse voices from the decision-making process. There is a growing demand for accessible technology and transparent meeting formats to facilitate broader public participation. 


“In the last census, 30% of the community born in China don’t know how the council accesses those people. People from CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) backgrounds are underrepresented in any visible consumption of council material.” – Councillor, New South Wales 

5. Discussion and Debate Behind Closed Doors Antithesis to Transparency 

Councillors echoed a desire for more public discussions and debates and expressed concerns about the increasing trend of private briefings. Transparency hinges on open dialogue and the sharing of decisions with the public whenever possible. Keeping council chambers accessible to the public is vital for fostering trust and accountability within local government bodies. 


“We need to keep an open window into what local government is doing; if a decision can be made in public, it should be. If it must be made confidential, it must be made public at the earliest convenience.” - Councillor, Victoria 


So, what does this all mean? 

Transparent decision-making within local government heavily relies on unrestricted access to information. However, many councils encounter obstacles when trying to obtain essential documents such as agendas, meeting minutes, briefings, committee reports, strategic plans, operational records, financial statements, and various other types of data. This challenge becomes particularly apparent during democratic debates, where access to information is vital for thorough discussions and timely decision-making. 


In the absence of prompt access to this information, many councils heavily rely on governance teams to provide concise, layman-friendly responses to inquiries. Councillors perceive the quality of information provided to be contingent upon the level of empowerment, training, background, and interpersonal skills of these governance teams. 


Technology emerges as a crucial solution to this issue. By delivering rapid and easily accessible information, technology enables councillors to retrieve details independently, thereby facilitating well-informed decision-making. This fosters independence and ensures equal access to information, safeguarding decisions from the influence of personal or political dynamics. The public also stands to benefit significantly from this approach. 


Going beyond council meetings, genuine transparency entails providing councillors with a comprehensive, centralised, and visually intuitive information hub. This "one-stop-shop" experience should integrate data from various council departments, presenting councillors with accurate insights at their fingertips. 


 

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