Liverpool City Council (LCC) in western Sydney has been censured by the NSW Information and Privacy Commission (IPC) for not releasing key information about a multi-million dollar outsourcing deal.
LCC outsourced its customer service centre in July to Queensland company Propel Partnerships, and maintained that disclosing key information about the deal in response to a request from the United Services Union (USU) was not in the public interest.
The Commission said the council should reconsider its position not to release the information and also said LCC had not properly justified its decision to charge the union a $2985 ‘processing fee’ to access the information.
Under the deal, which went live on 1 July, the Liverpool Services Alliance – a partnership between LCC and Propel – was formed, to run a new council customer service centre from the ground floor of the council’s Moore St headquarters.
A USU spokesman said the union’s request for information had been driven by LCC staff, many of whom had concerns about the transparency and possible conflicts of interest of the arrangement.
The spokesman said that Propel wrote the review of the council’s customer service arrangements and then recommended its own service model in its conclusion. The Union also contends that councillors were told that there was only one tender, which was from Propel, but in fact another company had also tendered for the work – something the council strongly denies.
He said council staff had given the union inside information on what documents to request, including emails, diaries and meeting notes between Liverpool Mayor Ned Mannoun, the council’s CEO Carl Wulff, Mr Wulff’s personal assistant Carol Todd, councillors and council staff that related to Propel’s review and its proposal for a service delivery partnership.
The union also requested declarations of interest made by Mr Wulff and Mr Mannoun relating to the tender and the review.
Mr Wulff presided over a similar deal with Propel about eight years ago when he held the same position at Ipswich City Council in Queensland. Ms Todd also worked with him at Ipswich.
In a letter sent to both the Union and the Council, IPC Investigations and Review Officer Nicole Gibbs-Steele said the Council had not adequately justified its decision to not release key information about the deal.
She recommended that the council should carry out an internal review of its decision which “cannot be carried out by someone who is less senior than the original decision maker.”
Ms Gibbs-Steele said: “The [council’s] decision does not demonstrate how the public interest test was applied in the way required by the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009.”
Liverpool Council Acting CEO Gary Grantham has contradicted the Union’s allegations.
“The allegation that there was more than one tenderer is an absolute fabrication,” Mr Grantham said. “Propel was the only tenderer for the contract which required specialised skills in this new area of customer service.
“Claims about secrecy are baseless. Council provided more than 5000 pages of material to the USU.
“Council has been actively explaining the nature and benefits about the arrangement to staff and the USU, and repeatedly assured staff that no-one will lose their jobs. The arrangement has also been closely scrutinised by the NSW Industrial Relations Commission.
“The USU has used this as an opportunity to conduct a sustained and misleading campaign against Liverpool Council.”
USU General Secretary Graeme Kelly said the Union had written to the council asking it to comply with the Commission’s recommendations and immediately release documents relating to the outsourcing arrangement with Propel.
“Staff, residents and ratepayers have a right to see the details of how a private company was able to carry out a review that recommended outsourcing of front-line council services, and was then awarded a contract to take over that work,” Mr Kelly said.
“If Liverpool Council fails to respond to these recommendations, we will have no choice but to consider launching a legal challenge in the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal to force the handover of this information.
“Legal action is always a last resort, but if Liverpool Council disregards the umpire’s ruling and continues to flout the law in relation to information disclosure, the union will have no other choice.”
Mr Kelly said council decisions had become “increasingly secretive” under the leadership of Mr Mannoun and Mr Wulff and that council staff and the public had been cut out of the decision making process.
“In the last year alone we have seen key documents withheld from the public, extraordinary council meetings held at times when many councillors won’t be able to attend, and opaque decisions that have left the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community worse off,” Mr Kelly said.
“It’s time for this to end, and the first step towards that is the full and transparent release of the details of this outsourcing arrangement.”
Liverpool City Council has been contacted for comment.
Propel is owned by the Local Government Association of Queensland and Aegis, a company which runs call centres worldwide and is a subsidiary of Indian multinational conglomerate Essar, which has interests in steel, oil, energy and infrastructure and a turnover of US$35 billion.
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