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.
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).
In early September, I presented on improving the functioning of citizen committees’ at the SA Community Managers’ conference in Adelaide. The conference is for local government managers and the theme was ‘Active Citizenship’. I proposed three positions council officers might hold about volunteer citizen committees:
- Citizen committees are okay and contribute to active citizenship
- Citizen committees are alive and well and have a strong future
- Citizen committees are a hangover from the past and their day is done
The response? The majority thought that they’re okay and contribute to active citizenship. Eight people thought their day is done. Only a handful of the 90 participants saw them having a strong future.
What can be done to make committees more okay?
My report on citizen committees, funded by the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government with Victorian partner councils goes into detail, but here I’d say:
- Their purpose should be clearly articulated. This is most likely if they are a meaningful part of a community engagement framework.
- Are people are using phrases like “god love ’em” about council advisory and other committees committees? It may be a signal for change!
On reflection I kicked myself that I hadn’t made my presentation more of a story. Why didn’t I draw more on my experience as a member of the community advisory committee of the Greater Metropolitan Cemetery Trust?
Meetings are quarterly, and the September papers were in my meter box when I returned from Adelaide. Themes from my research sometimes hit me when I’m preparing for or attending one of the meetings. This time it was:
Terms of Reference:
My term is time limited. I want to influence the Trust agenda. A year has almost passed! I feel real urgency. I think this goes for other members as well.
I’ve been progressing an agenda with a member of staff. I found out she’d left when I got no response to my emails. Research participants in my citizen committee study said how difficult it was when an organisation restructures or a contact person leaves. How to understand where to go to in the organisation? I brought this up at our last meeting, and GMCT agreed to make sure we’re kept in the loop.
Our committee provides diverse advice. So this meeting there was an item about the naming of a new area in a cemetery. By the end of the discussion it had come to light how Anglo the naming traditions are. There are people on the committee who can provide humanistic names from different languages, cultural and spiritual traditions. I love it that one of our members has a personal interest in Muslim burials. She is able to provide fresh insight to the organisation.
Then there’s the role of chair. I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of induction for all committee members, but especially for chairs. If you’d like to talk further, please call me. For now, on the basis of my personal citizen committee experience, I do think they have a strong future, if well managed and resourced.
After two years focused on the workings of citizen committees I joined a community advisory committee myself. Melbourne’s Greater Metropolitan Cemetery Trust (GMCT) services a huge community. That’s Altona to Lilydale and Fawkner. The diversity of its clientele reflects Melbourne’s cultural and demographic diversity. Members of the Community Advisory Committee are recruited through an expression of interest process (EOI). It’s advertised in local newspapers, and this was how I put my hat in the ring in 2011. At the time their criteria specified knowledge of sustainability and a relationship with one of Melbourne’s diverse spiritual traditions. Candidates went through an interview process in GMCT’s board room. I was not successful. I realised that some citizen committee selection processes are competitive and do attract skilled, interested people.
In 2013 a GMCT Trust member made contact, inviting me to join the committee, based on my previous interview. As a prospective community committee member, I was impressed that a senior person had done this. The GMCT’s community engagement officer followed up, and I received all the documents that the report I recently authored on citizen committees highlights. I went straight to the terms of reference to get clear about the nature of my brief. I noticed that the CAC’s role includes feedback on the Community Engagement Plan. Interesting. The agenda highlighted recent and future projects. I wondered if this would be a top down affair or if members would play a motivating role. Lots of papers- I took a photo of them spread on the carpet.
The first meeting demonstrated a number of good practices when making use of citizen committees:
1. Membership of the committee is changed almost entirely after the term is up. This gives the Trust access to fresh input, and new community views. The Trust does not land up with a stale bunch of ‘expert community members’.
2. The CEO took the time to attend the first meeting, gave a warm welcome to new members, and demonstrated responsiveness to committee members’ interests by offering to set up a guest speaker on the special interest of sustainability dimensions of funerals and cremations. We felt recognised.
3. The Chair gave the new members ample time to get to know each other. She and other Trust members who sit on the committee patiently answered questions about the Trust, its history and practices. We were well informed by the end of the first meeting. A tour of Fawkner cemetery was offered as part of the induction.
4. The agenda had been set up to give new members a picture of the success of projects initiated by past CAC members, and supported by the Trust.
5. All new members were able to contribute to the discussion and provide the perspectives that the Trust is seeking through using this form of community engagement. Some areas canvassed included heritage, maintenance of metro cemeteries through Friends Groups, shroud burial, planning and design, young people’s responses to death and the cemetery and specific practices at different sites of the Trust.
A really good start to my short shelf life as a community advisory committee member!