STAGE 3: FORMING AN OPINION
The third stage of the decision-making process gives councillors the opportunity to form their opinions on the proposals before them. This stage allows them to debate the issues effectively in the council meeting as part of the decision-making process. A key part of this stage is the council briefing.
WHAT ARE COUNCIL BRIEFINGS?
Briefings are information sessions involving councillors and senior officers in the administration. These sessions ensure that councillors are well informed and in the best possible position to debate the issues effectively once they’re at a council meeting. Briefings can happen at various stages in the process leading up to the council meeting.
Briefings help councillors determine whether they have enough information and advice to help them form an opinion about the matters in question. These meetings are generally held in private so that councillors are able to openly question council officers about the information they have been given, seek further information and float ideas. For example, they may want to know more about the consultation process to ensure that it adequately represents stakeholder views.
Briefings should not feature debates and councillors taking a collective position on issues. The appropriate place for this to occur is in the council meeting. In briefing sessions there is generally a one-way information flow from the administration to councillors who will ask questions and identify information shortfalls. Some councils have their Chief Executive Officers chairing briefings so that every councillor has the opportunity to identify and meet their information requirements.
Although briefings are not decision-making forums, councillors must still comply with the Local Government Act’s conflict of interest requirements as part of the briefing process. This is because briefings are considered ‘assemblies of councillors’ under the Act.
Well-managed councillor briefing sessions usually make the decision-making stage more efficient. If the briefing works well, councillors are less likely at the council meeting to have reason to complain that they haven’t received sufficient information or the consultation process has been inadequate.
GETTING INFORMATION OUTSIDE OF THE BRIEFING MEETINGS
While councillors will get most of the information they require via formal advice and briefings, there will be times when they may require more information from the administration (usually from the Chief Executive Officer or directors).
When this happens it’s important that councillors ask for information in a suitable way. It’s equally important that council officers are appropriately responsive as councillors largely rely on the administration for information and other kinds of support.
Requests must be legitimate
Councillors should ensure that any requests for information or reports are legitimate, lawful, related to their role and directed to the appropriate officer (depending on the protocols of the individual council).
Requests which fall under the category of file trawling or ‘fishing’ expeditions are neither appropriate nor generally legal. The administration as a whole, and council officers specifically, should be wary of providing fuel for internecine political disputes between councillors. If a councillor is requesting information about another councillor’s activities, the administration should find ways to deal with the situation without exacerbating it.
Information requests and good governance
If the administration view most requests as legitimate, then one way of managing councillor requests is to assess them according to the following criteria:
- how much work will be involved in meeting the request?
- what kind of information is required?
If a legitimate request can be easily met without much extra resourcing it should be. On the other hand, if it is resource intensive, it should become the subject of a council report.
This can become a governance problem when a ‘minority’ councillor makes continual requests for information claiming that it is essential for his or her role. This is often seen as troublemaking and is overruled by the majority of councillors which can also have a negative impact on relationships.
In these situations, the mayor’s role in communicating with the councillor is very important, as is having a good relationship between the council and the administration.
The council and the administration can develop protocols to ensure that everyone understands when and what kind of information will be provided to individual councillors. Some councils also use self-regulation such as a register that logs all the information requests by individual councillors.
Finally, in the interests of transparency, any information that is made available to one councillor should be available to all councillors.