“I want you to do my mum’s driveway, because I give you so much work, you can do it for free and I’ll give you more work.”
Sometimes my office deals with a series of cases that individually say little but collectively tell a significant story. This is a story of greedy officials. The three investigations set out in this report all involve allegations of misuse of public property by local council officers. One involved a council contractor paving a council officer’s mother’s driveway; another involved the misuse of a council fuel card to fuel an officer’s own car for some two years; and the third involved officers buying machinery and equipment with council funds for private use.
The amounts involved are not huge in comparison with recent corruption scandals. But it is precisely the fact that they do not involve big sums that makes the wrongdoing so pernicious – local officials who either do not recognise that their conduct is wrong but see it as a perk of the job, or who think they can get away with it because no one will notice. And all too often people do not notice and the risk escalates of a minor misuse of public funds becoming a major one. In the case of the driveway, for example, the crushed rock was worth only a few hundred dollars, but the contractor felt the pressure to do the job or lose the council’s business.
I am tabling this report in Parliament to draw attention to what appears to be an endemic problem within local government: despite codes of conduct that highlight the need for officials to act with honesty and integrity and avoid conflicts of interest, and despite the many people working in the sector who abide by those codes, too many people still do not recognise that codes of conduct apply to them, or simply do not care. Compliance and enforcement of codes of conduct is inconsistent and often relies on whistleblowers coming forward, rather than good governance and supervision.
All three of these cases were ‘protected disclosures’ — that is, they involved whistleblowers — and confirm the importance of a strong regime to allow people to report misconduct and protect them from reprisal when doing so.
The message in these cases should not be new or surprising to anyone: it is wrong to receive a private benefit from public office. My recommendations that individuals be disciplined for breaches of the code of conduct have been accepted by the councils involved in all but one instance, but this will not solve the wider cultural problem that plainly exists.
This problem has been highlighted in numerous reports by ombudsmen and anti-corruption bodies across Australia, including my own office and Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, with examples of council employees over-ordering turf, gravel, concrete and landscaping supplies to use for private purposes, including running businesses on the side. The reports repeatedly highlight the failure of management to supervise; workplace cultures where management is remote or invisible; and council employees, many of long standing, operating in small fiefdoms.“I urge all those in local government — staff and councillors — to read this report and ask: could any of these things happen here?”
Managers ignore alarm bells, which should have tolled loudly when the head of the unit that acquired machinery for private use cancelled his leave when told that an officer outside the unit would act in his role. Bad or suspect behaviour is not challenged out of fear of reprisal including, for contractors, the fear of losing council business. This is no small matter in industries where local councils are often the largest customer in the region.
Much guidance already exists on how these issues can be avoided and healthy workplace cultures promoted, most recently by IBAC in its review of local council work depots in May 2015. The fact that warnings have been so oft repeated goes to a combination of failed practice and flawed culture.
These sorts of misdemeanours repeat across the state, as is clear from IBAC and the work of my office: the specifics might vary but the moral challenge is the same. I urge all those in local government — staff and councillors — to read this report and ask: could any of these things happen here? If so, you have an obligation to your ratepayers to make changes in your culture and procedures before small private misuse becomes a large public scandal.
The full report will soon be available from the Victorian Ombudsman website.