Information Commissioner rejects ICC plans for Transparency and Integrity Hub

The most open and transparent local government in Australia has been notified that the Queensland Information Commissioner has refused an application to publish historical data, containing personal information, such as the names of former councillors, in the context of their council-related expenditure and that of the controlled-entities they established with ratepayers’ money.

In a landmark decision at the commencement of the new Ipswich City Council in April 2020, council resolved to establish the Transparency and Integrity Hub. The hub, which was proposed through a Mayoral Motion, was intended to publish all financial data and councillor-related expenditure in an open and accessible format to enable council and the community to move forward.

It was the council’s view in adopting the resolutions that this was necessary to draw a line in the sand after the findings of corruption and misuse of ratepayers’ money documented in the Crime and Corruption Commission’s Operation Windage report.

The Local Government Act 2009 and the Local Government Regulation 2012 place statutory requirements on local governments to publish specified information in their annual report each financial year and the Transparency and Integrity Hub is an extension of council’s obligation to publish that specified information. It provides a mechanism for greater oversight of council’s public expenditure, on a modern digital platform and in accordance with the act.

The difficulty council faced in deploying the hub as a vehicle for transparency is the legislative obligation council must balance with its requirement to comply with the information privacy principles contained in the Information Privacy Act 2009.

It was council’s intention for the hub to create open government for the public benefit, where all information, both past and present, was available and updated in the public domain, including the republication of specified information published in previous publically available annual reports.

In response to council’s application to publish detailed transaction data containing the names of former councillors in the hub, the commissioner warned council about breaching the information privacy principles in the Information Privacy Act 2009.

Mayor Teresa Harding described the decision as extremely disappointing and a hurdle to council’s open data journey.

“It is clearly in the public interest to publish greater detail of the expenses incurred by councillors and the Local Government Act and regulations legally require us to do so. It is beyond belief that this is now being blocked under the guise of privacy,” Mayor Harding said.

“We are now publishing detailed councillor expense transactions on a monthly basis on the hub as well as in our annual reports to the community.

“The public expect and deserve more transparency than ever and it’s our responsibility to build back the trust eroded by the former dismissed council. This new council holds itself to the highest governance and accountability standards and we have fought hard for this, for ultimate benefit of all communities across Queensland as well as the Ipswich community.

“I have written to the Minister for Local Government Steven Miles to express my concerns about this loophole. The information privacy principles do not provide an exception for local government to use and disclose the transparent dealings of its public officers and this falls dramatically short of community expectations.”

The hub, which went live on 1 July 2020, was Mayor Harding’s first order of business after taking office following the March 2020 local government election.

It was recognised as an Australian first for open government and a significant step in launching Ipswich into a new era of transparency, integrity and good governance.

Mayor Harding, who described the hub as the “gold standard” for accountability of Ipswich ratepayers’ money, was recognised for her leadership, winning a Smart Cities Australia-New Zealand award in December for delivering the innovative hub.

Council applied to the Information Commissioner for approval to waive council’s compliance with the information privacy principles for publication of data on the hub for the period 1 July 2010 to 1 July 2020, to remain in place until revoked or amended under the Information Privacy Act.

Council wanted to publish on the hub:

* Personal information contained in the councillor expenses dataset, primarily the names of council employees and former and current councillors, associated with various expenses incurred by each of these individuals for the period 1 July 2010 to 1 July 2020. This includes, for example, cab charge, newspaper subscriptions, Qantas club memberships, accommodation, airfares and business cards; and

* Personal information contained in the controlled beneficial entities dataset primarily the names of former and current councillors, former company directors, and council or company employees associated with various expenses incurred by each of these individuals for the period 1 July 2010 to 1 July 2020. This includes for example, parking, lunch, catering, wages and superannuation expenses, memberships and subscriptions.

In summary, council submitted that the public interest of including the personal information of public office holders and directors of former council beneficial controlled entities is that disclosure is important for the community and stakeholders in ensuring the effective, efficient, fair, accountable and transparent operation of government, and to ensure effective oversight of the expenditure of public funds.

The commissioner found that the incomplete, and potentially inaccurate, records contained in this dataset prejudices the fair treatment of individuals and was not satisfied that the former councillors and directors of the controlled entities, given their establishment as separate legal entities, would have been reasonably likely to have been aware, or have been made aware, that it is council’s usual practice to disclose that type of personal information on a publicly available database such as the hub. Former directors included councillors and senior council employees.

“I also note that the controlled entities dataset does not contain a complete record of financial and expenditure data for the period 2010-2020, reducing the utility of this dataset,” Ms Rachael Rangihaeata said.

The commissioner added that at the time council received its independently completed privacy impact assessment on 30 June 2020, council had not yet set clear expectations and made explicit the specific personal information council intends to publish to enable the proactive disclosure approach envisaged by council and that it would have to be certain measures are in place going forward.

Mayor Harding said while the hub concept had been new to Australia, she had been inundated with support and positive feedback from the Ipswich community and from all levels of government.

“Transparency, accountability and integrity are at the heart of good governance and have been at the centre of every action taken by this council since day one almost a year ago,” she said.

“We established the hub to meet public expectations. The people of Ipswich are entitled to access open data on the current and previous council’s expenditure.”

“Council will continue to lead the way on publishing real time financial data through the hub and I will continue to press upon government for legislative reform of this area, to overcome any conflict of laws, and to reinforce a state and national commitment to open government.“

In the interim, she said council will continue to work with the Information Commissioner to seek advice on publication of this specified data (already published at an aggregate level in annual reports prior to 2020) to the hub.

Council will continue to explore options in relation to the commissioner’s decision and maintaining its status of Australia’s most transparent and open local government.

Decision on Ipswich City Council’s application for privacy principles waiver:

Read More

 >>>Ipswich Mayor recognised with Smart Cities leadership award for transparency hub

>>>Mayor explains reasoning behind transparency and integrity hub

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  1. Something smells rotten here. It might be an idea for voters to require similar transparency from state politicians. I’d be interested in any follow-ups.

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