Another case study on how not to do community consultation

The City of Port Phillip, the blog’s local council, is yet again trying to establish new benchmarks in world’s worst practice community consultation.

This time it is a variation on one of its previous efforts – consultation over its budget. The last time the Council tried such a consultation it announced it with a multi-coloured leaflet letterboxed to all properties. Sadly it so closely resembled junk mail that many, including the blog, put it out in the recycling bin.

That was part of a consistent methodological pattern including the remarkable case of reversing the ordinary state of affairs in a consultation over a contaminated site in which the Council was advocating remediating it and the community objected to their plan. At the time the blog suggested this might be a unique situation although Australia’s leading issues management expert, Tony Jaques, and the world’s most eminent risk communication expert, Peter Sandman, chided the blog for claiming it might be unique. Very, very highly unusual indeed but not quite unique – which is probably some sort of defence however thin.

And of course the Council unveiled a new arts and culture policy under a title which raised copyright and cultural appropriation issues due to its resemblance to the title of Hetti Perkins’ book and TV show on indigenous art. But not to worry one of the Council’s Labor – yes Labor – councillors told the blog that this was not a problem because the title wasn’t registered. One can only hope her career doesn’t progress towards Parliament and a future as arts or indigenous affairs minister.

But the latest budget consultation certainly adds to this catalogue of failures. An attendee provided the blog with a detailed description of the budget workshop process the blog could not attend. This description follows with some bold italic blog interpolations. “There were only about 24 attendees at the workshop. Seven tables had been set up, but only five were needed – maybe quite a few who nominated didn’t turn up?” (Or perhaps ratepayers have learnt from previous consultation efforts and wondered if it was worth the effort)

It appears the bulk of attendees came from two prominent local community groups – one of which has been recently formed and campaigns against ‘wasteful’ council spending on issues such as child care and social housing. After all why let social housing detract from local property values and why do you need child care when absolutely everyone has at least one nanny.

Attendees were assigned to particular tables with two Council facilitators on each table; there was an external facilitator; and appearances by the Mayor and a couple of other councillors. The participant reported that: “The Chief Financial Officer gave an overview of Council’s financial position (without mentioning the amount in reserves, over $90m) but did point out that borrowings are only $7m and that Council has a borrowing ceiling of $70m. Fishermans Bend (a massive Liberal Government planning mess with significant negative impacts on Melbourne and the source of massive windfall property gains obtained by prominent Liberal Party donors) was a repeated issue with upfront funding concerns being highlighted.”

“The proceedings were structured broadly around the six Directions of the Council Plan, and more specifically utilised the 28 service components such as Affordable Housing and Homelessness, and covering the whole range of Council activity – Transport, Sustainability, Libraries, Asset Management and so on.

“As eventually became apparent, there were to be five rounds of questions for the tables, but they weren’t outlined at the outset. Round one started benignly enough with the tables being asked to look at areas where Council could usefully spend more in particular areas to provide better service outcomes, and to vote using the Menti system so that outcomes from the whole group could be quickly aggregated and displayed on screens around the room. After that first round, which from memory prioritised Housing and Sustainability, we were given the opposite task, looking at areas where Council should spend less. This task was much harder and our table eventually nominated Festivals and Asset Management as areas where we thought Council could generate more revenue and make savings that way.

“After that things became more problematic. In the third round tables were asked to determine areas where Council could stop providing services altogether. On our table we pointed out to the facilitator that this was not what we expected the task to be, and that there were no areas in which we thought the Council should absent itself completely. And if we didn’t respond for the Mentimeter, other tables who did could enable a distorted outcome to be obtained, in which the workshop could have identified service areas (like child care and social housing for instance) which Council should quit.

“The discussion with the facilitator got messy at this stage because the fourth round of discussion was to be identifying services which should be reduced ( confusingly similar to the spending less question) and the final round was to require the tables to quantify by what percentage expenditure on specific services should be reduced. The outcome of this discussion with the facilitator was that the last two areas did not proceed, and instead we looked at areas in which Council could be generating more revenue.

“There are a number of issues coming out of this process. First, the design of the whole process was very poor, with only more/less options, and no opportunity to look at ways in which service provision could be made more efficient and cost effective. Second, and more importantly, was the intended outcome of the workshop, which clearly was designed to generate community supported service cuts. Third, what was the role of Council staff in the design of the workshop, and what was the understanding of Councillors about its purpose?” the participant reported.

The infuriating thing about the whole process is that the Council could have just adopted a genuinely world’s best practice budget consultation process from the city it borders – the City of Melbourne. There a world class system – driven by a combination of staff and councillors Stephen Mayne and Nick Reece – established a new benchmark for any Australian council wanting to adopt such a process. Needless to say the City of Port Phillip failed to do so and remained committed to its own distinctive, quixotic and flawed ways of going about things.