CoPP provides another great communication case study

The City of Port Phillip has a remarkable track record in providing case studies for communicators – particularly examples of tactics and strategies to avoid.

Regular blog readers may recall that the Council managed the remarkable feat of failing to convince the community of the need for a remediation plan for a polluted site – reversing the situation in 999 out of 1000 similar cases. Then it ran a community consultation plan strong on pretty pictures and online dazzle but ineffective.

Now it has conducted another community consultation program on the Council 2017-2027 Plan which gets one thing right. However, it surrounds it with the hipster style common in the city but not much substance.

First, what they got right – albeit they seem a bit embarrassed about doing so. The Council has, after much urging from many people, resorted to a citizen jury type consultation such as that used by the City of Melbourne and promoted by Nick Greiner, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis and Geoff Gallop and others. The Greiner/Belgiorno-Nettis newDemocracy Foundation provided, for instance, the support and blueprint for the excellent VicHealth consultation and report process on the obesity problem.

Except Port Phillip doesn’t actually call it a citizen jury, presumably because the City of Melbourne had used the term before them and the process had been urged on them by so many residents and ratepayers. Instead they have organised ‘workshops’ which aim to engage a representative sample of residents and ratepayers. They have been undertaken by a consultancy – Deliberately Engaging – which talks on their website about their ‘engagement’ approach while quietly including in brackets that it is sometimes called citizen juries.

The Council is to be congratulated for doing so although the blog baulks at that amorphous word engagement which is a bit too much of an imprecise combination of kumbaya and hipster. After all it can describe actions ranging from a commitment to getting married to a close look at a YouTube cat video or binge watching a Scandinavian noir. Nevertheless the approach is a great deal better than what has gone before and the rest of the current consultation exercise.

That rest of the exercise is much the same as the Council’s previous efforts: ‘pop up’ opportunities to meet with Councillors at community markets and other events; an online survey; and bright footpath signage outside Council buildings. A cynic would say that pop ups are transient and anyone who has experienced a Port Phillip community pop up opportunity often finds the staff involved keep it transient by failing to take notes of the conversation you have with them. They do smile a lot, which the blog has found is an unfailing tell among staff members of many organisations that indicate they plan to do nothing about whatever you are saying to them.

The online survey starts by saying: “Together we are facing a future of exciting possibilities – as well as new challenges. We want you to tell us our ideas and solutions for difficult problems, and ask for your feedback on potential new measures.” And you can do all this in a 15 minute survey preceded by information about yourself – an ‘Avatar’ – which will provide a “demographic snapshot of contributions to this project”. Now the blog in the distant past was guilty of writing guff about ‘exciting possibilities’ and ‘new challenges’ but tries these days to avoid them because they are hackneyed and regarded cynically by readers.

The Avatar section also tries to get deep insight into your priorities over the next decade by asking you to list the top five things that you value most about the City – all of them things which ought to be the characteristics of any modern community. The next question merely repeats the list and asks which of the five you value least. Clearly government at any level involves choices and trade- offs. But you don’t need to trade off the key characteristics of a community and can instead think about cutting Council overhead costs and getting rid of highly paid managers in a City which has consistently increased its staffing costs by more than the increases in rates. Moreover each of the things listed in this part of the survey are just shorthand descriptors of complex policy areas where services and outcomes can be delivered or achieved in many ways.

It gets worse, however, in the next section of the survey which tells us “Change is everywhere and we have a choice to embrace change for the better or let change happen to us.” The blog can’t bring itself – yet again – to explain why the language of ‘change’ has become a nasty joke in organisations and the community. However, managers who normally move on to another organisation leaving behind the carnage ‘change’ often entails for their current organisation, continue to love it.

The survey then gives you the ‘opportunity’ to tick various boxes about policy options under the headings: transport and parking, waste, water and diversity and inclusion. All complex policy issues which are hardly going to be dealt with by the options the survey provides.

Finally you get the opportunity to list your top five preferences for what sort of City you would like Port Phillip to be in a decade. Unfortunately, every one of the 14 options listed is the sort of high level generalisation common in political policy speeches and on which the independent, Liberal, Green and other members of Council would have widely differing views on what they mean and how they could be achieved.

Nevertheless, just to check how effective this online approach was the blog looked at the number of online comments on the website on the key policy areas and then quickly calculated what they represented as a proportion of the City population. It came to 0.077% – although to be fair those numbers were the day before comments closed so there could have been a late weekend rush which pushed it up closer to 0.1%