The only way. For trust in government.

trust in government

The only way? A must for trust in government? Yes says this post, of deliberative style public decision-making.

Deliberative citizens’ juries, forums, assemblies and panels are now commonplace. In fact I know two people who have been recruited on to juries in two different states. Two people who are proud of the experience.

I called one of them last week. I was preparing to offer deliberative democracy training. Trust in Government was the theme.

‘Right now I don’t feel very optimistic about government myself, but I’ve since I’ve had the experience over and over of seeing people grapple with difficult issues in juries,’ I said. ‘I’m certain it is a way to increase trust in government.’

‘It’s the only way,’ she replied.

‘What makes you so sure?’ She came back immediately with …

Key ingredients

Firstly, I would never have joined forces with the others selected on to the panel. They came from different age groups and backgrounds. They had different skills. And they all brought commitment to solving the problem at hand.

We were put in a position to concentrate entirely on council’s problem. The remit for the panel was clearly focused. The trade off challenge was obvious.

Council was incredibly transparent. I was really surprised how frank and courageous they were. They laid (not very optimistic) information on the table. We understood from this information exactly what the problem was.

Our recommendations were presented at a closed Council Meeting. They asked questions and the report’s now in the hands of Council staff to apply. One councillor didn’t get the central premise of the report, perhaps hadn’t read it. But overall the panel’s work had landed with those who commissioned it.

trust in government
Photo credit: Byron Echo, Amy Phillips

These are key ingredients in the recipe for successful deliberative forums. They account for a change in perception by inviting trust.

With council acknowledging its has a trust deficit with the community, a citizens jury panel of 28 randomly selected anonymous ratepayers has been brought into decide how the rate rise funds will be spent the critical local paper wrote in advance of the panel.

Avoid erosion of trust

If my friend had had to put up with the council’s past attempts to consult the community again, trust would have been eroded by:

The perception they were consulting with a few people of a certain sort who they happened to decide were relevant. By contrast my friend felt that there was an interest in the whole community and its future.

The feeling of wasting precious time. They want my ideas and views in five minutes/one hour/half a day for nothing. It was clear that this problem could only be addressed by deep consideration, exchange of views, debate, review, and above all the willingness of participants not to hold fixed views. It would take some time.

Perhaps the aspect my friend most appreciated was that the deliberation was realistic and authoritative since the council put its trust in the panellists and gave access to relevant council documents and other material.

After devoting so much time to an agreed outcome, she felt what was decided was worthwhile and would make a difference to council in the coming period.

I’m afraid that all Canberra workshop participants saw their own agencies casually and regularly eroding trust with people. This happens through consulting people too late when the outcome is already decided, and through missing strategic opportunities to ask real questions. Senior managers lack trust themselves and make false assumptions about citizens’ interests and capabilities. Unfortunately the habit of eroding trust is hard to break, and so we see people who claim to be consulting trashing a very important brand, government.

p.s. my other friend appears in this footage that I played at the Trust in Government workshop in Canberra.

Jane’s Walk – walking in community

Walking in community
Following the recent Jane’s Walk Festival, I’m so excited about people ‘walking in community’. That is, walking in the simplest, most ordinary and satisfying way, in places like those where you live or where you go or that you’re interested in.

What’s Jane’s Walk?
Jane’s Walk is free and citizen led. It’s global – 352 cities took part this year. It’s a unique walking experience created for locals to take part in as walk leaders and walkers, and get to know their fellow community members and their city or neighbourhood better. It takes place on the first weekend of May each year. Jane’s Walk honours the legacy of Jane Jacobs, legendary urban commentator who has been massively influential on how cities are understood by progressives today.

Walking in community

How we walk
You may think that walking has lots going for it as active exercise. You might be like a local government manager I know, attracted to walking as a way of getting right off the beaten track and having a time of reflection. At the same time, taking walking tours are now a popular way of getting to know a city you’ve never been to. I did great walks in Berlin a few years’ ago with young, smart, professional tour leaders who really knew their stuff.
But then there’s the Jane’s Walk perspective on walking. This year walk leaders conjured up walks on very different themes – walkability in Fisherman’s Bend with Janet; parks in the City of Melbourne with Judy; neighbourhood connection on Amess Street Carlton with Kath; loss of houses and character in Preston with Annie. Check #janeswalkmelbourne on Instagram.
You don’t have to look afar to have an adventure! There are interesting things wherever you are. On my walk ‘It was gone in a minute’ in Preston we spent nearly two hours walking four or five streets. We looked at house numbers – remember the ones with silhouettes? We saw one of those, of a Mexican by a palm tree. We saw named houses and people discussed what they might have meant. We looked at mailboxes, driveways and plants. We talked about how the built form of Preston and many other areas in Melbourne is changing incredibly rapidly.
Social engagement across difference
You can have entirely different experience of social engagement walking with a random group of people. One man was attracted to my walk because he builds fine furniture from buildings torn down around us, another was doing a photography project of a doll’s house reflecting on housing unaffordability. There was a local government planner, a professor, and someone who does community engagement with the Level Crossing Authority. There were people who’d grown up nearby and people who now lived nearby. Talk about interdisciplinary!
Of course it’s wonderful to learn about relished and revered places in a major city. It’s wonderful to head off on a walking holiday in Japan, Scotland, Spain and France, New Zealand or Tasmania. And with Jane’s Walk it’s great fun to get together with locals you’ve never met and learn more about the life or future life of your neighbourhood.
Walking and healthy ageing
Yes there’s wide ranging evidence on the benefits of walking for healthy ageing. And with Jane’s Walk it’s fascinating to walk with a random group of strangers of different generations, and slow to the pace of wheelchair and walking frames. To stroll or dawdle and look at detail in a sociable way. I like this quote from a New York Times article on walkable urban retirement communities where an interviewee says ‘We realized “ageing in place” means a lot more than just a comfortable house, so we began thinking more about “ageing in community”.’
Walking in community
Jane’s Walk is about walking in community. It’s walking in a community of the past and present as Kath discovered on Amess Street and I did in Preston. It’s walking with the community of the future in mind, as Janet intended in Fishermans’ Bend, thinking about what needs to happen in this massive growth precinct, to make it a less hostile walking environment.
Walking with Jane’s Walk is free – it’s perfect for anyone who has an interest in place and some excitement about sharing it. Really it’s not hard to lead a walk. We find that those who turn up to meet us understand that Jane’s Walk is not led by a professional agenda. Rather it’s about an interesting couple of hours in which locals get together in place and learn as much from each other as the walk leader.
We partner with Open House Melbourne and hold events with them celebrating Jane Jacobs and Jane’s Walks. The next walks will be in July as part of the Open House program. I specialise in facilitation so if you’re interested in learning how to get Jane’s Walk happening where you are, get in touch. I’ve been Melbourne city organiser for five years now and plenty of experience in what makes walking in community.

How to have outstanding engagement with children?

engagement with children

City of Greater Dandenong ensures outstanding engagement with children. They are committed to Child Friendly Cities and Communities Charter, hold an annual forum with children, and a Children’s Advisory Group makes sure engagement with children is age and culture relevant.

I met Caroline Meier on site to learn more about Council’s recent Children’s Forum which investigated:

  1. children’s views of the library
  2. the public space of Harmony Square and City of Greater Dandenong parks and playgrounds
  3. activities, workshops and events offered to the children  at various locations (including Heritage Hill, Drum theatre, Libraries, events and festivals)

 

The site

Harmony Square is an outdoor space at the heart of the City of Greater Dandenong civic precinct. The large library’s floor to ceiling glass windows at ground floor forms the margin between the world of the square and the looking, learning and settling in space of the library.

I walked on to the square seeing a sunny open space well supplied with colourful seating. Oh great! a big screen like Fed Square. A quite formal planting of Norfolk Pine and some more free formed trees. A coffee shop with a servery facing out on to its grouped seats.

Children apparently like the coffee shop being there so their parents have something to do when they’re at the library. Council has also learned about what children don’t like so much about the Square through input from the Forum. Activities also took place in the library and other locations. Prior to the Forum Caroline had worked extensively within council in the lead up phase, and liaised with schools. She’s now busy getting the kids’ views back to council departments.

Children’s Forum: views on the library

Caroline and I sat in the library near the cafe. ‘The library staff designed their part of the children’s engagement,’ she said.

What she had to say next make me pause and reflect on deliberative forums. That is, participants have to become knowledgeable on what it is they are making recommendations about. To do this, there was a treasure hunt roving over two levels as the starting activity. Kids had to find certain kinds of chairs and various sections in the collection, such as the location of the children’s non-fiction.

engagement with children
Thanks to Weekend Notes!

Only once they had this level of familiarity did the activities begin. A children’s author got them to design the cover of a book and give it a title. This generated great insight into what kind of books they would like to see in the collection. The fact that the author had written bilingual children’s stories validated cohort’s diverse cultural backgrounds. It really gave them permission to express a desire for books reflecting their culture.

There was a survey on iPads. The kids said they’d like it to be a space where children’s art is displayed. What about a message tree? suggested one child, so that children could leave messages there and read messages from others.

‘A community intent,’ Caroline reflected.

Engagement with Children: an Advisory Group

One of the strongest elements of community intent in Caroline’s own work is a Children’s Advisory Group comprised of a small group of children representative of the local primary schools. They meet regularly to contribute to the planning of the Children’s Forum, design surveys and give feedback on ideas. The Children’s Forum is age and culture relevant because of their critical eye of the process. This reminds me of how important advisory and reference groups are to the success of citizens’ juries.

Next: Children’s views on Harmony Square

Engaging Children – what we learned at Engage2Act

Engaging children in decision making

At a curated session on engaging children ‘How I wonder what you think?’ at the recent Engage2Act unconference, the objectives were to:

• highlight voices of children in community engagement, drawing out rationale behind an organisation’s reasons for engaging with children
• share stories, examples and case studies
• learn from Child Friendly Cities and Communities Network member

Are children citizens?

I suggested that we find out something about how we think on children’s participation to start off with.

We looked at the range of views in the room on a spectrum from:
Children are citizens  to   Children are citizens in certain circumstances

Most people were surprised how much debate ensued. Many in the room were parents, and they could think of situations with their own children. They believed strongly in children’s rights. They also knew that it was not appropriate in every situation to give them freedom to decide.

Engaging children through purpose designed forum

It was great to learn how City of Greater Dandenong goes about hearing kids’ voices. They go out to 20 schools seeking 4 children from each. Ahead of the forum Caroline Meier from the Children’s Services area and her team invite different areas of council to propose strategies which would benefit from children’s advice. At the half-day forum tables are set up with activities relating to each strategy. Children also take part in site visits when they’re relevant.

Questions to Caroline ranged from how they go with getting schools interested to how Council supports and resources the activity. Caroline described a school which had persistently declined, but then took an interest when the event coincided with their students’ civics education curriculum. She noted that the event connects kids to their community in a highly meaningful way. Council now understands children to be the most appropriate stakeholders in having a say on certain issues and decisions that affect them. There is a very clear statement to children about what they can expect, and how their input will influence Council.

Resources

We brought forward a range of resources:
Victorian Child Friendly Cities and Communities Network charter and toolkit
NSW Advocate for Children and Young People resources
Tasmanian Government Involving Children in Decision-Making

Evaluation

In evaluating children’s engagement you might ask questions such as ‘Was it fun?’ ‘Did you get a go at everything?’ ‘Should we do this again?

We did ‘instant feedback’, asking two questions provided by Lyn Carson and Desley Renton: What surprised you? and What gave you hope?

The feedback revealed that this was a novel exploration for participants, and there is much more to be done in the area of engaging with children.

Engaging children in the water sector & local government

Clear Paddock Creek - engaging children

Why decide on engaging children?

    1. Many assets from buildings and parks to water are of special value to them.
    2. They make us sit up. Their perspectives on relevant strategies and services are outside an adult’s way of thinking.
    3. Children are a vulnerable group in crowded city spaces. We need to understand their experience of roads, public transport, water and public space.

 

Local Government and children views

In Local Government there is a growing imperative to engage with children. They are users of services and infrastructure. Parks and libraries immediately come to mind. However roads, footpaths and crossings are also a crucial concern for kids. The Victorian Child Friendly Cities & Communities Charter supports these principles: freedom for children to experience environments that consider their needs; respect and dignity for children to express their individual opinions, participate in and contribute to decisions about their communities and wellbeing; equitable access.

Signatories are: City of Greater Dandenong, Port Phillip, Maribyrnong, Moonee Valley, Whittlesea, Wyndham, Banyule, Moreland, Ballarat, Maroondah and Cardinia Shire. They provide members to a Child Friendly Cities and Communities Advisory Group supported by Victorian Local Governance Association.

Each of them takes engaging children seriously. Taking on board children’s views improves the quality of services and infrastructure being planned. You can see this in documentation by the City of Greater Dandenong. City of Melbourne and the University of Melbourne also documented a valuable engagement project with children.

Children, Water & Catchments

I hold a Working with Children card. Annie Bolitho & Associates was part of the Western Sydney Region of Councils (WSROC) project Water in the Landscape. Our project ‘The Water Closest to You’ explored community views in three areas of the Hawkesbury Nepean Catchment.

At one site, the Fairfield Festival, the children joined an activity at trestle tables using wiggly scissors, paper, paint and stamps. They did not hesitate. They stamped bikes on bike paths by the river, drew organisms underwater and addressed their books to a wider audience. They announced their values around water: leisure and recreation, healthy rivers and clean available water.

Clear Paddock Creek - engaging children
Clear Paddock Creek.

Parents helped younger children. Older cousins helped their younger family members. It was a highly multi-cultural festival crowd. There were references to water in Egypt and Africa. Some parents had grown up in the western suburbs and had detailed knowledge of the catchment in earlier days. They contributed their views to us while their children became authors of tiny handmade books.

Conference session: Learning more about engaging children and case studies

I’ll be running a curated session on this topic at the upcoming Engage2Act conference. That’s Thursday 14th September. Come and join us to learn more, share stories and case studies, and hatch plans for engaging with children in your municipality or water region. The session will include Caroline Meier, member of the Child Friendly Cities and Communities Advisory Group talking about projects from City of Greater Dandenong, especially their Children’s Voice forums.

Look forward to seeing you there.