Investigating Complaints about local governments

In recent times scrutiny of the integrity of local governments by the Public and by Regulatory Agencies, like the Crime and Corruption Commission, has increased significantly. This has meant increased demand for resources for investigating complaints about local governments – the activities of Councils, councillors and council employees. The growth of avenues available to members of the public and persons aggrieved about business dealings with the local government to formally complain now demands a higher level of transparency and independence in the investigation of those complaints.

The need for an independent external investigation typically arises from a complaint about decisions or actions of individual councillors or officers, alleging breaches of integrity which involve serious misconduct or corruption. In such circumstances it is essential that the response by the local government is seen to be transparent and impartial. The use of external specialists is therefore desirable and often essential to the credibility of the findings.

Balancing the rights of the complainant(s) and those of the persons of interest with the need for diligent and thorough investigation of the circumstances is a key determinant of how the investigation should be pursued. At the same time the investigator must develop sufficient documentary evidence to sustain the conclusion to either dismiss or act further on the complaint.

Methodology for Investigating complaints about local governments

investigating complaintsThe inquiry methodology needs to be appropriate to the seriousness of the allegations – neither too cursory nor excessively intense. This involves maintaining due respect and confidentiality for the individuals involved whether as persons of interest, witnesses or complainants. At the same time it is essential to diligently gather information and evidence in accordance with principles of natural justice so as to accurately reflect the facts and circumstances as a basis for considered findings and recommendations. 

By their very nature complaint investigations are varied and unpredictable in terms of outcomes. The results for differing circumstances typically fall into one of three categories:

  • Findings that the original complaint was not substantiated and the decision or action of the Council or its officer(s) was justified and consistent with law, policy and due process;
  • Findings that whilst no suspicion of misconduct or corruption was evident, there were defects or failures of Council processes that should be remedied or improved;
  • Findings that there were indeed grounds to suspect misconduct or corrupt conduct and that action should be taken against the alleged offender.

In all cases it is important that the resultant report provides documented explanation of the investigation process, specific and referenced sources of the evidence identified, articulate analysis of the facts and circumstances giving rise to the conclusions drawn and clear exposition of the findings and recommendations. This is considered essential to provide the client with a sustainable evidentiary basis for further action as required.

Effective Communication during the investigation

Investigating complaints about local governments requires a specialist focus. Consequently the investigator should have a close understanding of the particular context of the legislation, policy and administrative systems likely to be the focus of the complaint, as well as the often complex relationships at political and managerial levels that can give rise to suspicions of defective or corrupt decision processes.

Because once in progress complaint investigations can move off in different directions as new or further evidence is encountered, there is always a risk that costs will escalate without warning. Therefore it is essential to have a good working relationship between client and Investigator and constant communication to identify possible changes to the brief and the likely effort required to follow new leads.

A strong rapport with the relevant regulatory agencies involved in the circumstances is also important to obtain agreement on the boundaries of the allegations to prevent an expansion of enquiries into irrelevant areas, resulting in unnecessary distress to individuals and inordinate costs to the client.

Reinforcements can provide effective and economical professional complaint investigation services.

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