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.

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

Deliberative visions. When Victorians come together to think.

Coming together to think. It’s an important time. Say it’s your family and you own a property in common, and now it looks like time to sell. Say it’s your community and there’s a planning proposal that’s going to affect the amenity of a special place. Say it’s your city, and the practices of the elected representatives has gone so far downhill that the state government has stepped in. There are commissioners running the city. But that’s a short-term solution. How would citizens respond to various options for the governance in the long-term? The Geelong Citizens’ Jury on electoral reform saw citizens come together to think.

The Geelong Citizens’ Jury

One Saturday in March I spent the morning at the splendid Geelong Library. The Minister for Local Government, the Hon Natalie Hutchins MP, had made a date to respond to the Jury’s recommendations.

At least a hundred people turned out for the event, many of them interested citizens. After a stunning welcome to country, the Minister highlighted the transparency of the process, in which the jury took place alongside submissions from ‘the people of Geelong’ and online surveys. In other words the government had undertaken a hybrid process. She gave a warm thanks to the jury, highlighting their good sense and commitment, and said that she supported the main ‘practical’ recommendations to go forward to legislation. They had been taken to cabinet. ‘People power shone brightly through this process,’ she said.

There were three jurors as panellists who told of their experience. ‘Discussion without acrimony, one said, ‘it was a democratic experience’. The other woman said: ‘I was proud to be part of the human race, and what democracy can be’. Another juror was clear that the process had taken him outside his comfort zone.

Geelong Panellists and their deliberative visions
Geelong Panellists and the Minister

The Minister spoke of the jury as ‘a catalyst for community leadership’. Ideally some of the underpinnings of this might be:

  • learning new skills in collaboration and negotiation
  • learning about policy and governance
  • learning to influence elected representatives
  • becoming spokespeople or ambassadors of positive governance
  • an understanding of the commitment required in policy decision-making

Continue reading “Deliberative visions. When Victorians come together to think.”