Councils need to take of the Santa suit before inviting their community to participate in decision making.
Engaging with Adults
For community planning to be successful; to improve the practice of local government; to not add to the burdens of local government: we must engage with the community as adults. If we give the community authority to participate in decision making without responsibility, we treat them as children. As children the community are dependant and burden Council. We need to believe that the community are adults and are willing, even eager to take the responsibility that comes with authority.
To illustrate, let’s think about the family budget.
I want an iPod
If you have children, you understand they can’t take responsibility for the family budget. You don’t want them to. As a parent you want to create an environment that gives your child the freedom to grow into adulthood. This affects how you interact with them around what they want and what they can have. When they want a new gaming console, brand name clothing, a guitar or an iPod, you may discuss this with them but ultimately the answer is yes or no. You don’t give them authority.
Contrast this with how you discuss your projects and plans with your partner. You both take responsibility for the family budget, contributing income and effort. Undoubtedly your desires are larger than your budget. Not many of us can afford to have the new car, the overseas holiday, the new home entertainment gadgets and the landscaping all at once. This means you and your partner agree that the holiday is what you will do this year and maybe buy some new plants but do the work yourselves.
If one partner in a relationship exercises their authority without taking responsibility and buys the new car, engages the landscaper AND books the overseas holiday, problems arise. Unless both partners take responsibility, the relationship will fail.
The relationship between Council and the community is no different.
Take off the red suit.
If our community planning offers the community the authority to participate in decision making without also taking responsibility for the decisions, the process will fail. Without a doubt, granting the authority to influence the outcomes and priorities for the area, without reference to the technical, geophysical and commercial landscape will lead to an unrealistic wish list. Community planning should not be the equivalent of sitting on Santa’s knee and asking him what they want for Christmas.
A community that seeks to participate in setting the aspiration and priority for the community must also take on the responsibility that comes with this decision making. That includes deciding to increase rates, to reduce or discontinue some services so others can be expanded or introduced.
The online mandate
This idea of tying responsibility to authority in community engagement implies a sophisticated engagement. This is not just some general comments on a document. It is an interactive, multi point discussion about priorities and alternatives. It implies an ability to get hard feedback in the form of structured surveys and voting on specific proposals.
This dialogue and frequency of interaction mandates an online engagement environment. Only the web provides the platform that allows the conversation to progress quickly enough and cheaply enough to be practical.
A couple of quick forms on your website aren’t going to achieve this. To involve the community to the point where they can take responsibility for the implications of their decisions on the priorities and outcomes needs a method of disseminating detailed information that can readily be navigated without being overwhelming. It requires strong stakeholder management capabilities so the contributions of individuals across topics and engagements can be compiled allowing you to engage with that person as an individual.
In short you are going to need a dedicate online engagement environment.