Kerry and Westmeath county councils fail transparency test

Two local authorities rank lowest in study measuring efforts to curb potential corruption

‘The more information that’s out there the less likely you will see scandals in the future,’ said John Devitt, chief executive of TI Ireland, which produced the report. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

‘The more information that’s out there the less likely you will see scandals in the future,’ said John Devitt, chief executive of TI Ireland, which produced the report. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

 

Kerry and Westmeath have been named the worst-performing local authorities in a study measuring councils’ efforts to curb potential corruption.

The 2019 National Integrity Index, which analysed 31 councils, found too few publish details of political donations to elected officials and ethics declarations.

“The more information that’s out there the less likely it is that people will abuse their position; the less likely you will see scandals in the future,” said John Devitt, chief executive of Transparency International (TI) Ireland, which produced the report.

It found that only one third of councils published online details of elected representatives’ declarations of interest and donations, and almost three-quarters failed to publish comprehensive expenses data on their websites.

None of the local authorities published their chief executives’ diaries online and less than half posted their annual reports.

Online publication “really needs to be a priority for councils not just because it’s so easy to do but also because it’s so important to the public,” said Dr Elliot Jordan-Doak, the report’s author.

‘Conflict of interest’

“The public need to be aware of any potential conflict of interest so they can decide for themselves if financial interests or [something else is] influencing councillors’ decisions.”

The findings are based on a detailed assessment of local authorities, taking in Freedom of Information requests, information available on websites and direct feedback from council staff.

Each organisation was marked from a possible total of 30 “indicator” points covering a range of areas including the planning system, ethics, donations and expenses.

Kerry and Westmeath scored the lowest overall with 12 points each, or a rating of 40 per cent. The best performers were Fingal and South Dublin, both with 22 points (73 per cent).

We have had very few complaints of alleged corruption, but most will raise concerns about a lack of transparency

Almost three-quarters increased their scores on the first report in 2018, with Galway, Kilkenny and Wexford making notable improvements – the latter moving from 30th to fifth place. South Dublin, Kildare and Cavan each scored 100 per cent in the area of accountability.

Kerry and Westmeath councils did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Improvements

The report is not concerned with acts of corruption, but rather measures taken to ensure transparency, thereby creating an environment less conducive to abuse. However, it found that while improvements have been made, “incentives and opportunities” for abuse remain.

“In the last few years we have noted a significant number of calls coming through our helpline from members of the public raising concerns about their interaction with local authorities,” said Mr Devitt. “We have had very few complaints of alleged corruption, but most will raise concerns about a lack of transparency.

“People care when there is something at stake – when they’re applying for planning permission or they’re looking for some other service.”

TI Ireland says that with combined spending of almost €5 billion last year, the highest level of transparency, accountability and ethics is essential in local authorities. While similar work has been undertaken in other countries, there is as yet no international comparison.

In the coming years, TI Ireland said it hopes to expand its analysis to private and semi-State companies and to large public organisations.

“Corruption has both significant and substantive economic costs at both the national and local levels through channels such as reduced foreign direct investment and less efficient public spending,” the report notes, “along with serious social costs such as damaging political trust, increasing inequality and lowering public health levels.”

Westmeath County Council declined to comment. Kerry County Council did not immediately respond to requests for comment.