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.