IMPORTANCE OF THE COUNCIL REPORT
The council report is the way of providing councillors with advice and information. These are prepared by the council administration and should contain relevant data, issues and options which help councillors to consider the matter at hand and make a decision. The report should be well written, clear and concise.
The advice contained in the reports needs to be well researched and accurate. It should provide factual information and include policy, financial and other implications, as well as state which consultative processes have occurred or are planned for the future.
The advice shouldn’t be biased or deliberately oriented to the political views of the council officers who are writing the report or the councillors who are reading it. It should nonetheless be mindful of the political environment in which the council is operating and recognise that many council decisions have political implications. See Council & administration relationship for more information on the impact of politics on decision making.
Reports are usually produced by the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), department directors or third-level managers, however the CEO is formally accountable for all advice which goes to council from the administration.
Complex issues often impact on the responsibilities of more than one local government department. When this happens the advice should reflect this. Sometimes the entire senior management team will review significant reports before they are handed to the council.
STRUCTURE OF THE COUNCIL REPORT
While individual local governments should structure their reports to best serve their specific needs, it is useful to include the following elements:
The CEO is ultimately accountable for all reports. When another author is listed, a formal endorsement should be incorporated that acknowledges this accountability.
The report will ideally include a statement answering the following questions: What is the purpose of the report? Why is it being put to council?
This section needs to show whether the issues covered and directions proposed are consistent with council policy, as seen in the council plan and individual policies.
This provides information about the background or context of the report and explains why it is being put forward.
This is where the main content sits and includes the relevant facts and arguments. Advice about the Council’s legal obligations should be provided here or in a separate section of the report.
Financial and resources implications
Councillors need to be aware of the resource implications of any proposal, including the money, people and equipment that may be needed. The report also needs to outline whether the proposal should be incorporated in the budget.
If not, the report will need to state how the proposal will be financed and whether there are staffing implications. If this proposal is successful, the report will need to consider whether there are any current activities or programs that will be affected.
Sometimes environmental and social implications are also covered in this section.
Decision making should be based on appropriate consultation. This section should outline what consultation which has been undertaken, both outside and inside the council. Consultation within the council should show that all relevant parts of the administration have had the opportunity to provide input into the report.
This section outlines the relevant options and their implications.
This should logically draw conclusions from the arguments which will lead to the proposed recommendations.
The recommendations should clearly and concisely state what council is being asked to decide. Recommendations should be able to be read by councillors, without having to refer to the body of the report.
The first and preferred example below explains why council have not adopted a program, whereas the second asks the reader to read another part of the report:
‘Council adopt the proposed weed clearing program as it is financially viable and environmentally sound.’
‘Council adopt the proposed weed clearing program for the reasons outlined in Section 4 of this report.’
Recommendations usually form the basis of council meeting minutes. The minutes are the main way that the public is informed about the decision. Minutes that are clear and easy to understand contribute to higher levels of accountability and transparency.
COUNCIL REPORTS AND GOOD GOVERNANCE
The administration should ensure that the report contains professional and ‘frank and fearless’ advice. The report should not reflect the personal views of those providing or receiving advice, nor try to manipulate councillors’ opinions in a particular direction. It should genuinely and impartially evaluate the effectiveness of the proposed recommendations.
Councillors must also not try to influence recommendations in order to further their own aims. Their challenge is to persuade a sufficient number of their fellow councillors to support their ideas, rather than trying to influence council officers to make favourable recommendations. If councillors try to unduly influence council officers they could be in breach of the improper influence clauses of the Local Government Act.
CONSULTATION WITH STAKEHOLDERS
Finding out what stakeholders think about a particular issue is an important part of the decision-making process. Understanding the views of stakeholders helps to inform council’s decision. This is important for good decision making for the following reasons:
- when council knows what stakeholders are thinking about an issue, it is better able to consider the consequences and implications of a decision
- if stakeholders feel that their opinions have been heard as part of the process, they’re more likely to accept a decision, even when they don’t agree with it
- if good processes are followed, unpopular decisions are less vulnerable to ongoing challenges and possible reversal on the grounds of poor process.
Consultation does not detract from the decision-making powers of councillors or their accountability for those decisions, nor does it mean that councils are bound to follow the majority position on an issue. It is also not another name for government by referendum.
Another way in which councils can get the information they need is via advisory committees or working groups.
Unlike special committees, an advisory committee doesn’t have any formal delegated powers to act on the council’s behalf. Advisory committee recommendations or decisions have no legal standing unless they are adopted by the council at a formal council meeting. A council is also not bound to accept the recommendation of an advisory committee.
An advisory committee will often operate under a terms of reference document which sets out the committee’s purpose and how it will function. As with special committees, the council retains control over the membership and purpose of the committee.
Advisory committees can help to spread a council’s workload. It also gives council the opportunity to recruit particular expertise as well as access community resources and opinions to help guide the decisions.
Short-term advisory committees (which are sometimes called working groups or ad hoc groups) may be created for one particular purpose and will be disbanded when that purpose is achieved.