There is no doubt that the rapid development in Information Technology over the past decade, particularly via the Internet, has had a profound effect on communities and lifestyles. Access to information, ‘click of a mouse’ communication to anywhere in the world, e-business, e-government, e-almost anything. At home, work or play the information revolution has had a profound impact and will continue to do so.

Our featured Council this month, Ashburton Shire Council located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, has used this technology to provide greater flexibility in meeting the needs of its staff and elected members. Covering an area twice the size of Tasmania and with staff working at various locations across the Shire, improved communications greatly assists Council personnel and helps to deliver timely services for residents.

As well as overcoming the tyranny of distance for Councils located in remote areas, the convenience of information posted on the web, and the option for residents and ratepayers to do business with Council electronically, have been taken on board by most Local Governments, irrespective of their size or location.

Like other public or private sector organisations, most Council work stations have a PC together with connection to the Internet. Alongside the benefits this brings, there are also the pitfalls. These include productivity losses through non work related use of the Internet; matters relating to privacy and legal liability; misuse that may lead to a sexual harassment claim; and the potential for loss of intellectual property.

It is vital that all Councils are aware of these issues and have adequate software to protect them. At a recent seminar on legal monitoring of Internet communication, titled ‘Balancing Employer Liability and Employees’ Rights’, the message was that organisations need to establish a clear policy; they must ensure all staff members are aware of and understand this policy; and they must be prepared to enforce it.

Under the Privacy Act, any email monitoring must be directly related to the employment relationship and staff should be made aware that monitoring is being done. Employees need to be told that deleting files does not necessarily remove them from the organisation’s server, and that their communications may not be private. Consulting with staff and establishing a policy regarding reasonable private use, similar to the use of telephones, will help build trust across the organisation.

Councils must ensure they have systems in place to protect confidential information concerning ratepayers and their suppliers. The loss of intellectual property is a major concern for both public and private sector operations. Similarly, all employers need to be aware of vicarious liability: that is, responsibility for the actions of their employees. Even if employees have been instructed not to release information or give advice, employers may still be liable.

Linking what is permissible and what is not to the employment contract and including the use of the Internet and email as part of induction, alongside regular updates if changes are required, will protect Councils, staff, residents and ratepayers.