End 2016. Time to assess where we’ve been, and how it’s gone. How did our approach to key areas of work go?
When you’re a council searching for a workable, enduring approach to place-based governance, it’s too easy to find yourself back where you started.
In research on community governance I learned there’s no one way, no right way. Every place expresses itself differently. Every organisation dealing with communities has different views on what place and community governance can be.
The research revealed that most organisations would like community oriented governance to work for them. They’d like to bet both ways, that is, 1) to gain high quality input from citizens in relevant areas 2) to involve citizens in a way that restricts their influence.
There are good reasons for this view. Many councils want to a genuine link with their communities, and to get more people involved. They may want to ensure community interest in council owned assets. People who get involved may be doers, and not want to influence their decision makers. And watertight governance is always a concern. There is also the worry that councillors will take offence, believing that community members are usurping their decision-making role.
Another way of looking at place-based governance
Over the years I’ve seen many council officers frustrated by their committees. At the same time, citizen committee members are often discouraged by the narrow scope of their role. The evidence suggests that it’s difficult to get people on to such committees, and that those who do get on don’t want to leave.
Of course some of these problems are dealt with by time limited, well defined terms of reference.
But an underlying issue remains. I’ll term this ‘citizen agency’ based on the work of Harry Boyte of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship in the US. Influence, force, effect and work are all synonyms for ‘agency’. People are capable of so much when a well-defined problem is put out them and they get the chance to exercise influence. We see this with citizens’ juries.
“The huge problem with citizenship today is that people don’t take it very seriously,” says Boyte “ … for most people, citizenship is doing good deeds (communitarian model), or it’s voting and getting things (liberal model). We need to develop the idea of civic agency, where citizens are co-creators of democracy and the democratic way of life … We have … built thick silo walls around government by creating an opaque, discipline-driven approach to problem-solving. Busting those silo walls is imperative to creating more equitable communities.” You can read more from Boyte here.
Civic agency: a few Australian case studies
NSW: Waverley Council in metropolitan Sydney has for many years used precinct committees for place based governance in the precincts comprising the municipality. Say … I want to know more about my area. I can search the council website by street, and find which precinct I’m in. A street has to be changed – a new traffic island is needed. I’ll be advised by a letter box drop to attend a precinct committee meeting. It’s the precinct committee that hosts and runs the meeting where the neighbourhood sorts out what’s going to work best. Members of the committees have access to the back end of council’s feedback site, and can track what response is coming from their area and what further response is needed.
Victoria: an interesting case of the community members being given an influential role in the revitalisation of the urban precinct of Geelong was a time-bound S86 committee, The Central Geelong Task Force. The task force had its own website, and brought valuable professional skills to the task.
Not too far away in Lorne, citizens have pressed their municipality for increasing citizen agency in place governance. They are the Committee for Lorne whose vision, a sustainable future for Lorne, and mission 1500 by 2020 refer to the fragility of seaside towns with huge swings in population and significant ups and downs in business activity. They provide regular updates to the Surf Coast Times.
Voice for citizen agency: Hon Jay Wetherill
Jay Wetherill, Premier of South Australia has been a strong voice for raising expectations of citizens. In a 2009 speech on citizen-centric government he stated: ‘We must expect citizens to look beyond their own self interests to consider the needs of the community as a whole. So it implies a level of responsibility on behalf of the community. And if we are to move towards the high end of the community engagement continuum – engaging with citizens in true partnerships – then it is absolutely essential.’
Without this confidence and vision we will be looking at communities that understand an outside authority (you!!) to be in charge of the place where they live. They will miss knowing what local government does, and being involved in this venture in a more strategic, informed and effective way.
Thanks to Dayane Mardesich of Wyndham City Council who put a question on this topic out to the VLGA CASPN network.
Nobody would pretend the insistent and persistent don’t influence local government.
At a council meeting you see the lady in the front row you saw at the last meeting, and at the one before that. She takes out her crochet.
You put a strategy out to consultation and hear from the usual suspects with well known interests in a certain place or problem.
The ’same old faces’ dynamic is a real challenge when councils are seeking broader, more representative and meaningful engagements.
What if …?
A big reason for using a participatory budgeting process is to have more representative, accountable and transparent engagement around the budget. So, it’s no wonder that some local government leaders feel concern that the usual suspects will line up to self-select, try to exert inordinate influence, or in some way to impede a participatory budgeting process.
I often use the term ‘expert citizens’ about for who regularly opt in to consultation. It’s too easy to underestimate what these citizens have to offer, as I wrote in The Role & Future of Citizen Committees in Australian Local Government. They often have a high degree of understanding of policy and strategy. They understand processes of local government and that change doesn’t happen in a day. They may have grown into local government through being appointed to an advisory committee on the basis of their expertise, or as a representative of an interest group.
Stakeholders and self-selecting citizens
When it comes to participatory budgeting, there are a number of ways to consider interested parties. A case in point is the 2015 City of Melbourne People’s Panel. Here the organisers specifically built in CBD business owners to their sample. Important, but less powerful stakeholders, the student population, were also highlighted.
In a 2015 community summit held by the City of Greater Geraldton, to address the impact of drastic state and federal government budget cuts, the 120 participants 40 randomly selected community members, 20 members of City of Greater Geraldton’s 2014 Participatory Budgeting Jury, 40 self-selected participants, 20 invited stakeholders and partners of the City. The fact that the group would be prioritising non-mandatory services led the City’s decision to include self-selected and stakeholder participants as well as randomly selected participants.
Build bridges rather than working in isolation
From my experience a steering group to develop deliberative processes creates transparency and buy-in. Bringing interested parties on to this group, elevates frustrated advocates to the status of experts. Of course, clear steering group purpose and terms of reference, and good chairing are essential. In a jury run by Surf Coast Shire Council on a contested special charge, Council was brave enough to give membership of the steering group to a neighbourhood group that were pursuing proceedings in VCAT against them. These members became advocates for the citizens’ jury, and were very satisfied through their steering group role, and reasonable influence on the selection of expert witnesses.
Next we’ll be running participatory budgeting training with the Victorian Local Governance Association, and picking up issues like this. Hope you can join us.
The US Deliberative Democracy Consortium …
In the Age …
- Citizens are smart if given the time and information to deliberate on decisions.
- The importance of citizen involvement is increasing as trust in politicians wanes, and as hard decisions need to be made on budgets.
- The City of Melbourne Panel provides evidence that citizens are capable of understanding and making recommendations on large budgets. If citizens can work through the complexities of $5 billion major city budget, they can do the same with a $400 billion federal budget.
In the Fin Review …
Right now there’s a council officer out there battling with a squeaky wheel. I know this from my research on local government committees, where their role was a frequent theme. The officer is usually acting in the context of strategy and plans. The committee member is often acting with great determination and a community need in mind. This obstinacy isn’t always welcome. There he/she goes again!
Back at Christmas time I met a squeaky wheel. She dragged us off to try out public exercise equipment at Waterlily Park in Ocean Shores in Byron Shire, NSW. Sue’s a member of Nimbin Advisory Group. She’s after community accessible fitness equipment for the town, with a passion that must have council staff shouting, ‘Don’t oil the squeaky wheel!’
Actually we were happy to give the fitness equipment a try, and get fried in the 38 degree heat (no shade). And I had to find out more about the learnings, the frustration and passion of a squeaky wheel.
What makes you so keen on this stuff Sue?
I have a sports background. I’m a phys ed teacher by training, and played Australian women’s hockey. Sport’s in my blood! I first came across public fitness equipment on a holiday in Turkey in Istanbul. A woman in head coverings was using it, and so were people in all sorts of costumes. One of the things that impressed me was that it was accompanied by signs describing what muscles were used on a particular piece of equipment.
In Australia I saw it in Darwin at Nightcliff Beach. Everyone was using it. I started asking people whether they liked it. Then I saw some on the Gold Coast.
You seem to know a lot about it all.
Yes, I started taking note of forms, shapes, companies that make equipment. The best equipment around is ‘Fit for Parks’. That’s why I called the project ‘Fit for Nimbin’. Think about it … it’s a great title – just like ‘Fit for the Future’! (NSW local government amalgamation # ed note: squeaky wheels are experts, and know lots about the local government context).
I was ready to apply for money for equipment for our community, to get a group together who could see the benefits. We all know that council doesn’t fund things without matching dollars. We raised funds locally, for example the Rainbow Power Company, gave money because they wanted their employees to be able to exercise at lunchtime. We got money from Clubs NSW.
So how are things moving along?
Well, we weren’t successful with the local council. Their sports and rec area is more oriented to traditional sports. Yet research shows what’s needed is this kind of thing, which individuals can make use of at any time.
I was told that the reason the equipment wasn’t funded was because public exercise equipment was not in the 10 year plan! Of course I read the 10 year plan. It turned out there’s nothing in the 10 year plan for Nimbin other than a plan to improve some flat land with picnic tables. There is nothing active in the 10 year plan.
Still on the hunt for funds I started looking for the NSW government body funding sports equipment for older citizens. Yes, there was something! But it had been closed. The officer wasn’t sure it’d happen again.
So what’s the next step?
I find Councillors are more receptive to initiatives that come from the community than council officers. In my view, the 10 year plan needs community based equipment on council land which is regularly mown, and not currently used for anything. Our group has located a suitable area to activate, near the kids playground and barbecue.
There are many like us who want to exercise in their own time, at their own level of fitness. Equipment like this, that explains uses and safety, gives people the chance to be responsible for their own movement. We’re going to get some for Nimbin
So … the squeaky wheel … In the words of my research report, ‘Work with expert citizen members to realise the benefits of what they have to offer’ (Bolitho, 2013, p18).