What’s ‘civic agency’ got to do with place-based governance?

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.

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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.


Inner Melbourne participatory budgeting jury gets council votes!

Participatory budgeting jury Melbourne

This week the recommendations of the first Melbourne participatory budgeting jury were unanimously approved by Darebin City Council. The  jury’s final meeting was in early August and council worked quickly to get the recommendations (Item 901 Appendix A 15 September 2014 Citizen Jury recommendations) on council’s September agenda. The juror’s terms of reference gave them the task of allocating $2m on infrastructure to improve the community.

Darebin councillors really liked that:

  • the recommendations recognise that some community members are less well off
  • they’re novel and creative
  • they support a range of projects
  • they achieve value for money


The process was praised for bringing all councillors together to work on the project. As the consultant facilitator on this project, I wasn’t surprised that one councillor was glad that it gave citizens insight into what councillors do. It’s true. A juror reflecting on what jumped out at her at the first jury meeting, noted she was confronted with ‘So much need!! So little money!’

A central value in deliberative democracy is influence. It was great to hear the words, ‘Motion carried’.

Participatory budgeting jury Melbourne
Participatory budgeting jury coming to recommendations

My collaborator Martin de los Rios and many of the jurors watched the council proceedings on line.


Improving citizen committee performance

A citizen committee commissioned this community art.

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.

A citizen committee commissioned this community art.
Community art commissioned by local reserve committee.


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:

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  • 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?


Preston Cemetery, venue of our last meeting
Preston Cemetery, venue of our last meeting


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.

Participatory budgeting – the jurors

When you’re putting in the effort to hold a participatory budgeting jury or any citizen jury, you want it to be the best jury possible. The role of the jurors is at the heart of this. Apart from pulling out all stops with catering, what considerations should guide the way you think about their role?

A few things to think about are clarity of purpose, influence and evidence.

Purpose: Providing a terms of reference document makes it clear what the purpose of the jury is, what’s expected from each juror, and what the sponsoring organisation agrees to provide.

Influence: each juror recruited will have an interest in the outcome of their work, especially given the time they have put aside and the effort they’ve put into understanding the issues and relationship building with other jurors. They will want to influence, that is to form recommendations that make sense and can be taken forward.

Evidence: participatory budgeting, along with other deliberative processes is an evidence-informed approach to policy influencing. We talk of jurors ‘weighing the evidence’, and of this process providing a rationality based on evidence and deliberation. Jurors want evidence in the form of strategies and plans, previous community consultations and other ‘desktop’ material. They also ask for witnesses, based on emerging questions and discussions. It’s important that there’s a balance of witnesses, to provide the jury with independent information.