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.

Citizens’ juries – 3 scenes from a facilitator’s viewpoint

A facilitator at a citizens' jury

I’ve been a facilitator for many citizens’ juries and helped out at a few. Often I take 20 or 30 photos at each one. Lately I’ve realised that the same three photos tell the story of every jury I’ve been part of. It doesn’t matter that the topic for one is investment in rehabilitation and another maintenance of infrastructure, that one is the country and another in the city, or that the faces are all different. Those photos say it all.

Photo 1, 2 and 3 could be scenes. Those scenes show that a citizens’ jury, like a good story, is compelling because of tensions in plot, through the beginning, the middle and the ending.

Scene 1: What are we doing here?

This photo is the one that is most interesting from my point of view as a facilitator. It’s the one I take of a bunch of random people waiting for the start. It’s a photo of individuals sitting having their own thoughts. They may be sitting well spaced, away from others. They may be looking at their papers or their phone. Some look as if they’re anticipating the jury with mild interest. Some look very uncertain.

Essentially they’re killing time until they get to answer the question: What are we doing here? This is the single most important question all jurors want dealt with at the start. There are no juries where jurors simply want to get on with it. Or there may be, but they will be limited.

As individuals, jurors seek to get a response from the sponsoring organisation on how their work/weekend/commitment is going to make a difference. This isn’t surprising given that many pre-polls of jurors reveal that they tend to have above average interest in public life or local governance. These people have seen many citizen consultations that don’t make any difference.

Until this question is answered to their satisfaction a jury can make no headway. For the sponsor this can be a very uncomfortable phase. They’ve put months and weeks and hours of work into getting the right sample, making sure the briefings are prepared and the speakers lined up. What’s going on? These citizens appear to be rather underwhelmed by our courage and initiative. What makes them so heated? Why this cutting critique?

As a facilitator of many juries, I know it’s just a stage. The jurors just seem to be difficult. Inevitably their questions have to be addressed to their satisfaction before they will begin work.

Scene 2: Jury at work

This photo may be taken only a few hours after the first, or the next day, or the next weekend. Jurors whose faces earlier reflected such strong and personal concerns have warmed to each other and warmed to the task. Often we first see this when the large group of twenty or thirty or forty people has moved into smaller group work, and everyone can have a voice. It’s like a cog clicks in and jurors start to feel productive and involved.

People talk of being on a roll, of focusing on what needs to be done. At times they’re reluctant to move on to the next activity on the agenda. Interactions are lively. Jurors start to get the measure of each other. Many jurors bring special expertise whether as a barrister, a parent, an architect, an accountant, a man who has worked on infrastructure maintenance or seen someone go through the experience of rehabilitation, a woman who’s employed by another local government municipality or another hospital. They bring knowledge of localities and special circumstances. They’re young and they’re old and in between.

The random stratified sample is in the process of acting effectively on this remit. In photo 2 we see interested, purposeful and collaborative participants.

A facilitator at a citizens' jury

An interplay is developing between these people, the remit and its scope, and the agenda. It is crucial to get this right for a successful jury within the chosen time frame.

As a facilitator how do I believe this is this done? Firstly by ensuring the scope of the remit is as straightforward as possible. Secondly by designing or structuring the agenda very well. You could almost see it like a play or a script, with prologue, three or four ‘acts’ and many ‘scenes’, and occasional flashbacks to review significant learnings. We write an agenda that will build an increasingly sophisticated perspective on the remit. This gives us as facilitators confidence that even if jurors are on a roll, there is the next thing waiting for them to do, and it will take them one step further toward making recommendations as a group.

Scene 2 is satisfying. Of course, along the way, a small group or an individual will throw in a major question or challenge just when things seem to be resolving and it must be given its due. Clients worry about how the jury’s divergent thinking will ever come together into recommendations. And no jury has ever got through the process without major qualms and the biggest is how they will get through it all.

The doubts and challenges are grist for the mill. In Scene 2, the jury that the organisation set out to form has taken shape and is hard at work. I say hard at work in attempt to explain how incredibly hard people work on a citizens’ jury.

Scene 3: Jury presents recommendations

This photo shows the most public phase of the jury. In most cases guests have arrived from the sponsoring organisation and as representatives of interested parties. The jury has often been under ridiculous time pressure to get here. They have chosen representatives to speak. Their slidepack is ready. The rising action through the jury plot has arrived at a point where the story is wrapping up.

As a facilitator I’ve seen this scene many times. Yet Scene 3 is still something of a miracle. How did those characters from my first photos move this far, in what has really only been a short time? How is it possible that the random group of strangers that sat apart experiencing mistrust based on their own personal experience have entered into a sophisticated collaboration? Who would have thought that citizens with little or no understanding of rehabilitation or infrastructure maintenance (or planning for growth, or rating strategies, or public safety, or disability) could become so knowledgeable and refined in this area of technical expertise?

These characters have written good recommendations. Not every juror will be satisfied with them … if only there had been more time. Nonetheless, the recommendations impress the guests. Some guests who earlier believed citizens would never be capable of dealing with the issue or remit may even be slightly intimidated by the strength of conviction and expertise of the jury. There is no doubt of the commitment, learning and growth in understanding of the political or investment process that informs what has been presented.

For those who are planning a jury … work needs to be done on the setting

Like any good story, a satisfying ending emerges from the setting of the jury, from interwoven narrative threads, from conflicting perspectives, and from the traits and characteristics of jurors. Above all a satisfying ending emerges from the organisation having put time and planning into the setting of the jury to enable everything that happens next. If they are committed and can rise to answer the question: What are we doing here? with clarity, and if their staff and the facilitators have developed the right script, the scenes unfold. The jury gets to work. They make their final recommendations.

If you’re interested in training in your organisation to create a good jury setting please contact myself or Chad Foulkes at Liminal by Design.

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.

Deliberative democracy hypothetical

Taking it carefully

A great night at Victorian Facilitators’ Network (VFN) this week, exploring deliberative democracy. VFN is fertile soil for us Victorian facilitators with seeds sown, watered and nurtured month by month. There is no membership, just a place for everyone. VFN is a curiosity and generosity driven network that builds professional skills.

The deliberative democracy night was led by the inimitable Michelle Howard of Collaborations. Michelle revealed herself as a huge fan of Geoffrey Robertson. Yes, she has the Hypothetical mojo for sure!

Michelle set up the deliberative democracy hypothetical ‘in-the-round’ of our VFN circle. The problem focus? A contentious facility in a northern Melbourne suburb undergoing rapid change. The stakeholders? Ward councillor, council manager, seniors (the current facility custodians), and a range of culturally diverse groups.

Kimbra White of Mosaic Lab and Bruce Turner were the expert consultants on the deliberative format they term ‘Citizens’ Panels’.

Michelle invited people to the stakeholder roles, ‘I’m sure Joyce of the Senior Citizens is in the room’. My word she was! All played their roles convincingly, drawing on knowledge and experience of communities and councils.

The hypothetical was followed by discussion.

Take it carefully for deliberative
Take it carefully when scoping!

Dynamics I’ve often seen in scoping deliberative projects came up in the hypothetical scenario. For example between ward councillor and council manager, and councillor and consultants.

Councillors can feel that they are letting down the democratic side if they allow others to play a role that effectively influences decision-making. In addition, they are concerned about those community members who regularly have decision-makers’ attention. They understand and respect these people (even if they are a little too vocal). A random stratified sample may be promising because it brings in ‘everyday people’ but surely well known stakeholders won’t be overlooked? I’ve written about the way this plays out in ’Usual suspects threatened by participatory budgeting’.

The consultants and council manager did a great job of speaking for the silent majority as Stephen Mayne has done as a brilliant advocate for deliberative projects.

Nonetheless, there was a lot of discussion about the degree to which inclusion in deliberative processes is truly inclusive. Arabic and Indigenous stakeholders said: our community members would not feel comfortable joining in as lone and unsupported jury members.

I remembered my experience with the Richmond Residents Citizens’ Panel. This jury included people from Africa, China, Vietnam, the Middle East, Latin America and Indonesia as well as old time Melbourne-ites, teenagers, young mums, seniors and everyone in between. However a decision was taken not to include people who would require interpreters.

The evening highlighted that deliberative forums are a really hopeful option in today’s political climate. Yet one person felt strongly that citizen despair would be fuelled if a deliberative forum’s recommendations were shelved

Finally it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the scoping phase. The evaluation of a training program we conducted for the Victorian Local Government Association, Nuts and Bolts of Participatory Budgeting, showed that councillors, executive and officers alike were challenged by Council’s task in realistically scoping the deliberative remit. Firstly participants said it’d take a lot for key internal stakeholders at their council to join forces to define a jointly owned problem. They saw the political dimension of gaining agreement of senior executive and councillors as pretty challenging. Finally they identified the need for culture change so that a council could comfortably ‘partner with the community’ as is required for deliberative processes.

Nonetheless  identified the value of the methodology for getting a genuine community view on:

  • Council Plan
  • Community Planning
  • Capital works and council assets
  • Community thinking about trade offs


If you require guidance, advice or mentoring at the scoping stage, do get in touch.


It’s the thought that counts!

Christmas 2015. Presents piling up under people’s desks at work after lunch-time shopping. No doubt some won’t quite hit the mark. But it’s the thought that counts.

When government spending doesn’t hit the mark it’s different. If I said to a bunch of neighbours over Christmas beers in my park, ‘Government wastes money’, most of them would agree. There’s a few things to talk about locally. In 2015 our municipal rates subsidised the mayor’s university degree to the tune of $16K. He should have stepped down in my neighbour’s view. And then not everyone thought it was a great idea to put in pop-up trees on High Street to test out a new urban landscape. ‘Waste of money! And someone’s going to have an accident. Probably cost a fortune!’

Then there’s the quirkier example from the railway station. When MetroTrains or Public Transport Victoria installed a large monitor in the entrance way, anyone could have told them it’d be graffited in five minutes.


Problems, solutions & waste

People perceive waste when they can’t see the relationship between the problem and the solution. In fact we see MetroTrains creating a new problem.