Sunday, July 21, 2024

10 recommendations from whistleblowing audit of six NSW councils

An audit of Public Interest Disclosures (PID) compliance by six NSW councils has made 10 recommendations aimed at improving processes.

NSW Ombudsman, Paul Miller says the intention of the audit was to identify why PID reports were not made or not being appropriately identified by the councils.

“Under the PID Act 1994, every public authority in NSW must provide the NSW Ombudsman with a six-monthly PID report on the number of PIDs they receive, the type of wrongdoing reported and the awareness activities they have undertaken in the reporting period,” the Ombudsman’s report stated.

“Our reporting data indicates that local councils are more likely than universities, local health districts and state government agencies of a similar size to report to us that they have not received any PIDs.

“In the six reporting periods covering the three calendar years of 2018 to 2020, 85 (66%) of the 128 councils in NSW reported to us that they had not received any PIDs.”

Fifty-two of those councils employ more than 150 staff.

The Ombudsman conducted audits on six councils that had reported that they had received no PIDs over the three year period 2018 – 2020.

“We sought to identify whether the above factors could be relevant. Detailed individual audit reports have been provided to each of the six councils,” the Ombudsman stated.

“During the six audits, we noticed that no two councils took the same approach to fulfilling their legislative obligations. The audits aimed to assess both whether the audited councils comply with their legal obligations, and whether the way in which they do so supports a strong reporting culture and practice.”

NSW Ombudsman, Paul Miller.

The Ombudsman found that all the councils audited could make improvements to their reporting culture and PID practices.

“Our audits did not identify the specific cause of the ‘nil’ reports within individual councils. We did, however, identify various factors that increase the risk of PIDs being made but not reported or identified, and/or the risk of PIDs not being made due to barriers to reporting,” he said.

The audits also identified that four of the six councils had nominated officers who had never received training on their PID responsibilities.

“It is therefore of particular concern that we found that no audited council had provided
sufficient training on assessing and handling PIDs to all staff with PID responsibilities.”

“Further, none of the councils had a system to ensure that staff with PID responsibilities
were trained within three months of commencing the role and that they receive regular
refresher training,” the Ombudsman stated.

The report makes 10 recommendations, including that councils scope, plan and conduct a staff survey to assess the reporting culture in their council, including identifying levels of PID awareness and any barriers to reporting.

“Our recommendations are not addressed solely at legislative compliance, but also at enhancing reporting culture and practice, while also preparing agencies for the
implementation of their enhanced obligations in the New PID Act 2022,” the Ombudsman said.

“Accordingly, just because we have made recommendations in relation to a council’s practice does not mean that they have failed to comply with their legal obligations as set out in the PID Act 1994.”

Mr Miller said the recommendations would help to assist agencies to enhance reporting culture and practice, in a way that prepares them for the implementation of the enhanced obligations in the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2022 (NSW) (New PID Act
2022)
.

The New PID Act 2022 establishes a new framework for protecting public officials who make PIDs, and for making and dealing with PIDs. On commencement, it will replace the PID Act 1994.

“We have therefore sought to ensure that the recommendations we have made are consistent with the new legislative requirements, to reduce the burden on councils and to assist them in their preparations for the new Act,” the Ombudsman said.

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