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Opinion: All Levels of Government are Avoiding Effective Consultations with their Communities

Opinion: All Levels of Government are Avoiding Effective Consultations with their Communities
January 9, 2022

Australians are no longer being consulted about what is happening in their communities as they could or should be. Whether it is railway station car parks, sporting facilities across regional Australia, rail crossing removals in Victoria, freeway extensions and developments in the major capital cities, vegetation clearance in rural regions, urban growth corridor plans, or the loss of native vegetation in resort towns, residents and communities are being asked what they think and subsequent angry outbursts are largely ignored.

Back in the 1960s, American sociologist, Sheery Arnstein in her 1959 paper A ladder of citizen participation (published in the American Institute of Planners), posited eight levels of community ‘consultation’ as a means of ensuring community engagement and development and planning outcomes that reflected the needs and aspirations of a community. The hierarchy started with a mix of placatory and controlling ‘manipulation’ strategies, ‘therapy’, and ‘informing’ before moving through ‘consultation’, ‘partnerships’, ‘delegated power’ and ultimately, to ‘citizen control’. Only the latter four were endorsed by Arnstein.

By the 1980s, the push for open, accountable government meant that consulting the community was achieving at the very least, regular comprehensive consultations, partnerships and some delegation of powers. While citizen control was often beyond the legal authority of most levels of government, Councils and state governments had given communities wide representative powers. In Melton, Victoria, recommendations on the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars of sporting development grants annually was delegated to a consultative forum drawn from community sports associations. In Bendigo, Victoria, a state government-sponsored program had sporting and leisure representatives from the then five Councils in the region reviewing, evaluating and prioritising the spending of upward of $500,000 annually on new leisure initiatives.

Today, that has virtually all gone. All levels of governments and even not-for-profit and charitable organisations do whatever possible to exclude the community or at best, to feed them pap, evasion and misinformation. Several examples highlight this.

In one Council, officers would not divulge the names of 'community panel' members as contact with panel members “could have threatened the independence of their views”. As a consequence, no one from the community except the 'community panel' members could put forward a viewpoint. Elsewhere in Victoria, three Rail Crossing Authority meetings called to hear resident views on a proposed crossing removal, saw 18 'consultants' (an oxymorn), tightly manage groups of 60 residents who had had to register to attend. They refused to hear any discussion on whether the specific project was needed, physically sidelined people who insisted on having their alternative views heard and produced vapid, weasel-word filled reports with conclusions that had no statistical validity.

Interviewed for the present Opinion and several related reports, one Authority member admitted, on condition that she not be named, that regardless of what was said at the consultations, the crossing removal was going ahead. Dozens of additional cases come to light every month across the country.

What are the causes of this problem? Several of the many include:

• Politicians and bureaucrats do not like to have their pet projects scrutinised. 'Can do' governments, officials and elected members are worst: they have an 'agenda' and want to leave a 'legacy', the achievement of which will carry them to the next election. But they know that they have to talk to the community - at the very least for photo opportunities - so they let a few things happen

• Communities are now more educated, more concerned, more vocal and better able to mobilize than every before. And there are many, many more informed retirees, media-based organisations and special interest groups who are active on community issues. Most politicians and bureaucrats do not have the depth of specific knowledge to match these people and often cannot counter their arguments. So they employ consultants and remove the opportunities for the arguments to be put. Or, they only listen to the arguments that endorse their thinking, or move to change laws so as to disenfranchise community critics.

• Politicians and bureaucrats see things in terms of black and white and pick 'winners' while the subtle shades of many other hues are unwanted complications. The complexity of society and the world exacerbates this response

• With consultants and contractors now doing so much of the work that government employees used to undertake, officers and elected members often do not know what is going on and do not want to have to admit this. The issuing of media releases and calls for comments and “input” replaces real consultations

• Government has become lazy. Instead of rigorous, comprehensive consultative strategies (that need money, time and skills), they use one-off opinion polls, focus groups or, god save me, Survey Monkey surveys. These all so often have no rigor, no controlled, balanced sampling, and no checks and balances. I once reviewed the results of a Survey Monkey 'consultation' undertaken to placate Councillors unhappy with the work of one officer on future basketball stadia. Of the 400 respondents, 96% were members of the basketball fraternity (when across the community, the figure was 4%), while the response number suggested that every basketball association member had averaged two replies. The Council accepted the results and proceeded with the stadium development. In another such survey, three employees of my client (including my project manager) completed the Survey Monkey they insisted on, as one lived in the precinct being planned and two occasionally stayed in hotels in the geographic area. They then pored through the result sheets to pick out their answers. The 93 responses represented around 0.4% of the relevant community, and

• All levels of government are in a hurry to prove that they are on top of the problems of the day and that they have the solutions. Proper consultations with the community take a lot of time and effort and this is perceived as a wasted time. They see things in terms of black and white when everything is really 50 shades of grey. And the next election is always around the corner.

This situation has to change. Without strong community engagement, communities are weakened and self-interest takes over. Without strong community engagement, democracy is weakened, people give up caring and the self-interested gain the upper hand. Without sound community consultation, money is wasted on initiatives that are not needed while other more important, community-building initiatives are not implemented.

Back in the 1970s, the Australian Government of 1972 to 1975 under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam funded dozens of regional councils across the nation. These were designed to review and evaluate issues and needs and to propose and commence community-building initiatives and employed faciliators and advocates to collate, develop and promote the views and aspirations of the community. Some regional Councils still exist, if in name only, but residents are still reaping the benefits of that strong commitment to community and community consultation and engagement.

It was recently argued that only 8% of world governments are democratic governments. The words democratic and democracy are a combination of two Greek words: 'demos' referring to a citizen of a city, state or country and 'kratos' referring to power or rule: that is, citizen-power or citizen rule. At it’s worst this can mean revolution and citizen uprisings overthrowing the power of the rulers. At it’s best it can mean rulers seeing themselves as part of the citizenry, seeking, listening to and acting on the views and desires of residents. That is not happening in Australia.

There is a plethora of ways by which the community can be consulted, partnered with and have delegated power. Five or more of these tools should be used on each individual leisure and recreation (and other) planning project. This ensures that there is cross-referencing of findings and that no single method dominates the findings. The more often a mix of consultations is re-introduced to the daily workings of government at all levels, the better our communities and society will be. Time for action!

Do you have an opinion on something in the leisure arena that you feel needs airing? If so, contact Australasian Leisure Management at leisure@ausleisure.com.au

Reference: Arnstein, S 1969, “A ladder of citizen participation’, Journal, American Institute of Planners, vol. 35, pp. 216-224.

About the author

Dr Ken Marriott

Dr Ken Marriott trained as a geographer with special studies in urban land uses, agriculture and climatology.

Having, in 1979, completed a PhD in geography at Monash University, with his research focused on the effectiveness of then-current leisure and recreation planning strategies he went on to be Managing Director of the leisure planning consultancy HM Leisure Planning Pty Ltd from 1984 until his retirement in 2016.

His book, Community Leisure and Recreation Planning, co-authored with John Tower and Katie McDonald from Victoria University in Melbourne, was published by Routledge early in 2021. 

He wrote on the need for leisure and recreation planners and providers to drive effective action on climate change in Australasian Leisure Management issue 146.

He can be contacted on email at ken.marriott@hmleisureplanning.com 

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19th December 2020 - NEW COMMUNITY LEISURE AND RECREATION PLANNING TEXT A PRODUCT OF AUTHORS’ DECADES OF EXPERIENCE

 

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