What Are Councillors Hiding When They Ask Questions?

“The best teacher for it, in his day, was Bertie Ahern,” says Independent Councillor Christy Burke.

“He used to sit quietly and I discovered that all his questions went in privately under ‘details supplied’. He let nobody know nothing,” he says.

It has been more than 30 years since Ahern sat on Dublin City Council alongside Burke.

Now though, council officials are reviewing a much-used practice that councillors tap into to make requests and ask hidden questions of those on the executive side.

Why Now?

Sometimes, when councillors submit queries to council officials or make representations on behalf of constituents, they hide the constituents’ identities by submitting questions through a category of questions called “details supplied”.

That way, private information such as names, ages, or addresses is blanked out when they get the responses back at council meetings.

When a reply to a “details supplied” question is issued to a councillor, it’s only issued to the councillor in question. In the case of all other questions, the replies are made public.

A council report said the advent of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which comes into effect later this month, has prompted a review.

It’s unclear how, specifically, it would relate to these “details supplied” questions. But generally, as a processor of personal data, the council now needs to take “enhanced care when dealing with personal data”, said a recent council report.

Most often, “details supplied” questions focus on the council’s management of social housing, says the report. So, questions around repairs, or replacing appliances.

Council officials are concerned about transparency, though.

In 2017, 3,928 of the 5,526 questions submitted by councillors, more than 70 percent of them, used “details supplied” to hide information.

But just 883, or roughly 16 percent, of those questions contained personal data. So what are councillors hiding, and why?

The report on the practice found that “in some instances all Area Committee questions submitted fall into this category”.

Why and When?

Councillors differ on why and when they use “details supplied”.

Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey says he only uses it to protect the anonymity of constituents. “I have only ever used ‘details supplied’ when it comes to personal details,” he said.

Some others use it “in an inappropriate way”, he said.

Sinn Féin Councillor Janice Boylan said she agrees. While sometimes it’s about protecting identities, it isn’t always.

“Some councillors just don’t want other councillors knowing which roads they’re going down, what they’re looking at,” she said.

“There’s an element of laziness and of hiding stuff,” says Labour’s Lacey. Some councillors just cut and paste from a constituent’s correspondence, which includes their address and person details.

In 2017 in the south east area area of the city, which falls into Lacey’s constituency, just 147 questions of 778 were hidden with “details supplied”. In other words, 19 percent.

In the central area, meanwhile, which is Boylan’s and Burke’s part of the city, councillors submitted 505 of 505 questions through the “details supplied” route. In other words, all of them.

Some councillors – whether they admit is or not – use “details supplied” to prevent other councillors from knowing what local issues they’ve been told about, or are working on.

It’s a political game that has been rolling on for decades, says Burke, who has sat on the council since 1985.

It’s a tool to use as a “great protector in cases of sensitivity”, he says “But it is also there to hide from political opponents. [… Not] letting them know what you’re doing.”

If a councillor gets wind of a local issue, one they hope to champion or support, chances are they’ll used “details supplied” to hide it from other councillors, says Burke.

Tony Gregory was “an awful man for hiding details”, says Burke. “But a great man to hijack someone else’s [ideas].”

Bit of Sunshine

Some councillors argue that it’s time to do away with “details supplied”. Or at least adopt a more transparent system.

“It’s an interesting conundrum,” says Green Party Councillor Patrick Costello, who calls the south-east area home. “I use ‘details supplied’ to protect somebody’s identity. After that I think everything should be as open and transparent as possible.”

Many queries submitted by councillors focus on council housing, replacements and repairs, anti-social behaviour issues, and rent arrears. “They are very personal matters,” he says. “You can’t get rid of it completely.”

Fianna Fáil Councillor Paul McAuliffe suggests that it is time to do away with how councillors currently submit questions.

“It’s an archaic system from a time when there was a limited number of questions,” he says. These days he could get hundreds of queries from constituents each month.

There is an argument, however, for maintaining the “details supplied” option, says McAuliffe. “I have to have a way of finding out information without a colleague of mine taking that information and [using it].”

The recent council report suggests other ways of doing business, though. Publishing replies to all questions without personal details, or allowing a “time gap” so that a councillor can relay information before it is made public, it says.

At last week’s protocol committee, the early morning meeting where councillors decide the technical rules around how its meetings and business should be run, councillors said they accepted that the issue needs to be ironed out.

Council officials are due to refine their recent suggestions in the coming weeks, says Lacey. “We feel that unless it is a genuinely personal issue that it should be on the public record.”

In the coming months, there will be push-back from some councillors, says McAuliffe, if there are attempts to change the “details supplied” practice. “I think it’s a generational issue,” he said.

“That’s the cut-and-thrust of politics and you just have to accept it,” says McAuliffe. “I don’t think hard work, though, can be replicated by gimmicks.”

Burke is among those who oppose changing the current system. To be quite honest, I have no intention of letting any other opponent hijack my hard work,” he says. “I want the status quo to remain.”

Says the Green Party’s Costello: “It’s going to be an interesting nut to crack.”

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

Reader responses

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steve white
at 9 May 2018 at 13:29

Is this more to do with councillors paternalism, giving people the impression that its best to ask for something through the councillors when it might not be (although it at times might be necessary after the council comes back to you with pat answers).

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