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.