How not to communicate or consult

The City of Port Phillip provides a never-ending series of case studies of how not to undertake communications and/or community consultation.

Regular readers will remember how the Council created a new benchmark in issues management – failing to convince residents that action had to be taken on soil contamination in a local park. In all the blog’s decades in the issues management field it had never experienced a situation in which the usual proponents and opponents positions were completely reversed.

Then the Council launched a community consultation program for its new corporate plan in which the brochure inviting feedback was so badly designed that many people threw it out assuming it was junk mail. The questionnaire was also a long way from best practice, even though it used the rhetoric of citizens’ juries, but the whole process seemed more like a symbolic nod to the need for community consultation rather than any genuine attempt to engage the community in the many nuances involved in community choices and priorities.

However, it’s not only the big things they get wrong. Recently they started putting balloon-shaped signs on the footpath alongside the beachfront. These were admirably designed to give people information about community features and also, from the content of some, to give a boost to local traders. At the blog’s end of the beachfront walk the Council placed a sign encouraging pedestrians to visit our community’s main street – Bay Street – to enjoy the restaurants there. Unfortunately the arrow on the sign pointed directly out into Port Phillip Bay which would be puzzling for visitors, another source of despair for residents and a source of fear that some tourists might decide to swim across the Bay to Williamstown – the nearest collection of restaurants in the direction the arrow was pointing.

Now the Council has distributed a brochure about how they plan to change the parking arrangements in the blog’s street by introducing two and four hour parking limits. Well to be precise they distributed one brochure and then had to distribute a second one because the first had errors in it. The brochure had not only a sort of rationale for the proposed changes – they had already made a series of parking changes in a neighbouring area which might lead to a parking spill over into the blog’s street – but also clear evidence that whoever drew it up hadn’t bothered to gather any hard data about the current situation in the street or even tried strolling down the street to establish the current situation.

For instance, the online survey which residents could fill in asked a question as to whether we wanted parking restrictions – either two or four hour – on either the even or odd numbered sides of the street. There is a slight problem with this as the street actually has the even and odd numbers on the same side and the opposite side is a park which was once a shunting yard. Needless to say the online survey won’t let you submit your answers to the survey unless you answer the question or unless you choose a third option which is totally misleading.

A second problem is that the consultation material says resident parking permits which would be introduced for people living in the streets could not be used on the side of the street abutting the park. Now if someone from the Council had actually walked along the street they would have found that there are not enough parking spots on one side of the street to accommodate all the cars owned by residents, resulting in residents’ cars being parked on both sides of the street. The problem is compounded by the fact that most residents don’t have garages (it is the inner suburbs after all but perhaps the people designing the survey hadn’t realised that) and many working families in the street tend to have two cars.

At least the Council didn’t suggest we sell our cars and use public transport (which is good in the area thanks to the State Government) or adopt a policy advocated by a former Mayor that parking should not be provided in developments because this would encourage people to sell their cars and buy a bicycle or use public transport.

In a similar vein the Council wanted to close a street a block away from a local school to create a pocket park and footpath on which children could walk to school rather than crossing a small street. Local residents objected but were persuaded to withdraw their objections. When a retired, but very experienced, traffic engineer looked at the plan he immediately realised that all the closure would do was to channel traffic one block further along and into the tangle of humongous four wheel drive vehicles which twice a day clutter the street in which the school is located as well as many other streets further afield.

To the school’s credit the Principal does try to encourage parents to walk with their children to the school and some do exactly that. Unfortunately in most of the more gentrified areas (which now comprise most of the suburb) upmarket four wheel drives are considered an essential family possession – presumably to navigate the towering speed humps we have on many streets and the beach sand which sometimes dots the streets after strong westerly winds.

Now the blog knows community consultation has to be undertaken – well at least being seen to be undertaken – but it recognises that it rarely alters pre-ordained decisions. It also knows in this case that if the Council proceeds with the plan the inevitable result will be more parking fine and residential parking permit revenue for a council which over the years has often increased expenditure on staff and overhead costs faster than spending on community services. Sadly it also suspects that the City of Port Phillip will continue to provide case studies in how not to do community consultation or communication.