Public Interest reports are relatively rare – but they are playing an increasing role in holding local government bodies to account. In the last six weeks or so I have issued four reports in the public interest on local authorities. And, over recent years, I have also issued them on a number of community councils and a drainage board.
As the Appointed Auditor for the principal local government bodies in Wales, public interest reports are one of the tools available to me – defined in legislation. It is clear that with more members of the public becoming interested in the activities of their council, particularly as services change or cuts take hold, a report in the public interest is becoming increasingly powerful. It provides a level of scrutiny over decision-making which may not have been present during the decision-making process itself. As well as being publically available, a report in the public interest must also be considered by the organisation concerned at a public meeting, further enhancing public scrutiny.
When should a public interest report be issued? Well, auditors have to use discretion and each case is considered on its merits, but there are a number of factors that influence this decision. These include significant items of spending which are contrary to law or failures in governance. And, there’s also the extent to which the public are interested in the matter, which is measured by the volume of correspondence an auditor receives, or the level of media interest.
So, what have been the key themes of the public interest reports issued in recent years? These broadly fall into four key areas:
- The conduct of meetings including failure to advertise meetings, the presentation of inadequate reports to inform decision making, failure to maintain proper records of meetings and decisions.
- Participating in the decision making process while having a disqualifying/conflicting interest
- Failing to maintain proper accounting and tax records, false accounting, members signing blank cheques and failing to maintain an adequate and effective internal audit function.
- Personal conflicts leading to breakdown in relationships, staffing disputes and infighting, a lack of supervision and an over reliance on trust. Members and officers acting in a way likely to undermine public confidence and a lack of understanding of roles and responsibilities
It goes without saying that the proper conduct of public business is vital for the effective delivery of public services. And, the public can be assured that local government auditors in Wales will continue to be alert to issues which may require robust action and, where appropriate, reporting in the public interest.