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.

Participation – new ways, new people

Participation is a term that means a lot to me as a community engagement professional. Here’s a fresh way of looking at it.

New ways, new people

Today many water companies and local governments are grappling with sharing their business planning:
•    in new ways
•    with new people
as Victoria’s Independent Economic Regulator, the Essential Services Commission increasingly directs them towards understanding the community’s views.

A conference presentation posted online by Justine Hyde of the Victorian State Library has got me thinking. She describes participation as shaping, creating and learning to share spaces and resources in new ways, with new people.

Room waiting for participation

Ideas about participation in my field are often shaped by terms like Inform, Consult, Collaborate (IAP2 spectrum).

What does it feel like?

Thinking in categories can lead to blind spots. This is a real issue if it’s something important to participants.  “What does participation feel like?” Hyde asks.

Here’s her great list:

•    participation feels involving and engaging
•    it is the act of sharing, taking part, and it implies being an equal, and being respected
•    participation feels like being invited to be part of something bigger than yourself
•    it feels like a supportive and nurturing environment
•    it feels active, which by deduction means it can’t be passive
•    it feels positive, which means there is a benefit or value to it and it is enjoyable
•    to participate in something you have to be present – in body and mind!

Hyde asks: if it feels like that, then what does it look like in the organisation in question.

Social, cultural, staff & personal participation

I’ve seen many great organisational approaches to participation in recent work, and I’ve put them into Hyde’s frame.

•    Social participation: the water companies with which I’ve recently worked through Insync, Gippsland and East Gippsland Water, have given customers an opportunity to have a voice in the economics of water supply. The discussions focus on value. What do customers value about their water supply? How much do they value do they put on service? It was clear, say at a pop up outside the Coles in Morwell, that people felt included in something bigger than themselves. We certainly hope that this contributed in a small way to building a more civil society.

•    Cultural participation: having seen the thorough work East Gippsland Water has done engaging with place and people, I would think that there will be East Gippsland Water people at NAIDOC week celebrations in Gippsland. City of Darebin’s 2016 flag-raising event for NAIDOC really highlighted partnerships across the municipality, with National Disability Insurance, Police, Fire Brigade, local employment providers, and a major hotel group all involved.

•    Staff participation: hearing the voice of staff makes all the difference to quality services and engagement. Like the State Library where Hyde works, Sydney Water has used design thinking to ensure that staff insights to the customer journey are well understood.

•    Personal participation: Hyde highlights what you as an individual bring to your organisation, your team, your profession and yourself. Being present, attentive, positive, active, supportive, generous and respectful. I see this professionalism and personal interest in my clients all the time. As Hyde suggests, it builds a valuable collective confidence for organisations setting out to create participation experiences that feel good.

Speaking on water

[Setting: Readings Bookshop, Carlton]

[Event: Launch of ‘Plastic Water, the social and material life of bottled water’ by Gay Hawkins, Emily Potter and Kane Race, MIT Press, 2015]

Emily Potter:

Annie is the perfect person to launch this book. She is someone who has been intimately involved in the multiple lives of water for many years, as a scholar and artist, through stakeholder engagement and community consultation. She has worked with water as a material force, as technical object, and as cultural matter.

Annie Bolitho:

It’s an honour to be here to launch ‘Plastic Water, the social and material life of bottled water’ on behalf of its authors Gay Hawkins, Emily Potter and Kane Race. I do have a longstanding interest in the subject. One context from my working life I’d like to mention is my association with the University of Melbourne’s fabulous interdisciplinary Master of Environment. In one of their core units, many students engage with water as an urban ‘flow’. Their projects are situated in a rapidly changing environment, and must be long ranging. Future leaders like these will really benefit from the insights in this book.

Right now I’d like us to get together around the book! Isn’t it a beautiful production?  It’s the product of seven years’ work. It’s a huge collaborative achievement.

The book started life as an Australian Research Council project. None of the authors imagined they’d be working on it for so long. Yet their stick-with-it-ness’ rewards us with a complex, often mesmerising study, which follows the object of the plastic bottle into multiple unanticipated scenarios.

Back Camera

Gay has consolidated her empirical and theoretical work on everyday practices of sustainability. Emily and Kane note with appreciation Gay’s insistence on the empirical. They’ll take this into future work. All the authors identify with different disciplines, as well as Cultural Studies. Nonetheless I’d like to take the occasion of this launch as celebrate the contribution of cultural studies as a discipline. It’s how I connect with the authors. It’s where I find some of my favourite theory, for example by Isabelle Stengers.

Back Camera

But most importantly Cultural Studies as a discipline doesn’t organise itself slavishly around method. This causes alarm to many!  However we see in this book, an unusually close examination of a cultural institution, say the accelerating habit of what the authors term ‘frequent sipping’ and all that makes it so.  Say the corporation Evian or Coca Cola Amatil, generally speaking seen as a brand. Perhaps a brand with ethical overtones. The authors bring these corporations to light as a plethora of social and material embodiments: their PET bottles, their labels, research programs to provide authoritative content for website marketing, corporate executives and operational staff, in-house purification plants, investment in ‘disadvantage’, as well as our society’s ‘attachment to a cluster of promises’ (Isabelle Stengers quoted in the book).

The UK commentator and sociologist John Brewer highlights the way today a narrow impact research agenda pushes people’s attention away from the very issues and complexity we need to be dealing with in our society. That is not the case here. We are invited into engagement with complexity and wonder, in a diffuse global transnational context.

A frequent criticism of Cultural Studies is that it fails to connect beyond the academy. One reading of the chapter on the Northern Territory Intervention knocks that on the head. The material on hydration reminds us of the relatively short period in which we have come to see ourselves as ‘me, me, me’ biological subjects. Think about it. We urban humans did not run before the 1970 New York Marathon, prior to its unprecedented media coverage. We run because of Gatorade. Read the book to find out more. The material on South and South East Asia brings forward what Simon During terms ‘a vernacular globalisation’. A great achievement.

Let’s raise our glasses to the authors, and launch this book. Cheers!

Hear more about this project in an interview with Emily Potter on ABC Radio.