Are they really listening ?

'If they don't like what the people want, let them get another people! 
Berthold Brecht

As local councils claim that 'closeness to the people' is a necessary and desirable activity for them, we should ask ourselves how well the current types of community involvement actually work.  Consider my local government area, the City of Port Phillip. There are around 85 thousand people within the council area and the council has an annual income in excess of $144 millions and employs more than 500 staff.  The councillors congratulate themselves that they do the 'closeness to people' bit very well, and although they try, in general I think it's pretty ineffective for both sides.

I've been involved in many public participation programmes, both as a consultant and as a member of the public, and although it's a article of faith among politicians that some sort of great folk wisdom resides in 'the people', it's an idea that they quickly become inured to when it conflicts with their own views!

Planning is a complex business with a lot of legalities that have to be respected but it's clearly not that complex that citizens can't understand it. Planning issues are not so much technical as concerning what values they should embody, and it's here that the split with the planners becomes clear; quite often the community just has different values that the planners should respect.

The most basic sort of public involvement is when some contentious development is being voted on at a Council meeting.  Provision is made for members of the public to speak, and it's interesting that those who oppose what's proposed usually come away happy enough. They like having their say loudly in public even if their views are ignored, so this sort of meeting has a good political outcome for the council in that it tends to shut up potentially vociferous critics.  

There have been a variety of other sorts of community consultations that have been held over the last 18 months on the future of the Triangle. The council provides good food, and I suspect there are a few old ladies in straightened circumstances who come along for the food alone.

The first type were round table meetings open to all where 6 or 8 citizens sat around a table with one of the council staff and discussed what should be done, wrote things on butchers paper and a spokesperson for each table reported on their findings at the end of the meeting.  As you would expect the reportings tended to overlap and be pretty general.  Many photographs are taken for council brochures at meetings like this showing how well they consult us!

At one of these meetings participants at each table were asked to put post-it stickers on their lapels, they all had things like 'traffic congestion' or 'high rise' written on them, and a ball of colored string was passed around joining up the relevant statements.  It was meant to show, I guess, that it was a complex and inter-related problem we were trying to solve.  It hardly needed this kindergarten game to point this out, but what could you say; a PhD at my table winked at me and we didn't say a word, but it says something about the way the planners see the public!

Another exhibition was held in tents in the O'Donnell Gardens and the public was invited to put colored dots on photographs of the sorts of developments that they liked.  Again a bit kindergarten and more important, it was obvious that this is a very dubious way of drawing conclusions about anything.   You couldn't put your dots on something that wasn't there to start with, so there had already been some prior selection, and it was too open to bias.  For instance, I put all my dots on the open space picture that I liked rather than spreading them around. And the final report revealed that in any case only 66% of respondents to the survey lived in the area.

And lately there have been more serious Community Forums, where selected citizens were invited to join the councillors in having some new material presented to them by consultants, and where participants were asked to keep everything confidential. 

I object to this in principle. I don't want to be invited to collude in being told things that have to be kept secret from my fellow citizens; shades of George Orwell's Animal Farm.  To add insult to injury, nothing in the unendorsed opinions expressed by these consultants conceivably needed to be kept confidential.

It was said in justification of this practice that, 'We want all information to be made available in the right context at the right time for all to see'; sounds like the patronising language of the earlier BBC councillors to me! 

This revealing of information to a select few and then keeping it confidential for no good reason is simply a ploy to disarm selected 'important' citizens and enroll them into accepting the council's view. 

The planners, of course, have to support the notion that consulting the public is valuable, but there's not much evidence of their willingness to be open enough to accept views other than their own!  In their eyes the value of community consultation is that it shuts the public up so they can get on with things. Most planners will readily tell you that ideas rarely surface from the public that haven't already been canvassed by the professionals, implying that mother know best, to just leave it to them. With a bureaucracy this powerful it ends up 'them and us', with game playing and manipulation.

However, imagine if the council was three or four or five times bigger as has been proposed, with an even more powerful bureaucracy. It's unlikely in that case that a site like Waterfront Place would get as much notice, and the politicians could probably safely ignore any objections.

So all in all, in my opinion none of this earnest consultation works particularly well in Port Phillip. 

I've written elsewhere in 'Getting to Yes' about other ways of getting real value out of community consultation.  Politicians are a mixture of conviction and ambition; we should elect more of the 80+20 percent ones to take on the planners. We have to find a better role in council deliberations for concerned citizens to counter the undue power the officers have in determining our environment. 

In the hotter, dryer world that is coming we can't go on like this.  Read in the Looking Back extracts one view about what might happen in Port Phillip.  Whether it happens like that, or in some other way, we'll need to harness our collective will to find better, more efficient ways than the present ones if we are to survive as a civil society.

Don Gazzard
April 2012