What not to do: community consultation case studies

An organisation which embarks on an issues and risk management strategy around a contaminated site and can’t win support from neighbouring residents; and, which launches a widespread community consultation project on future directions, policies and budgets with a preliminary leaflet which gets ignored probably has significant cultural and communication problems.

The organisation is the blog’s local council, the City of Port Phillip (COPP), and the issues and risk strategy related to the local gasworks site which was found to be contaminated. COPP worked hard to convince residents that action needed to be taken only to be confronted by resident pushback to create a rare case study which completely reversed the usual positions in such cases. The blog has written about it before.

Now COPP has launched a ‘have your say’ program on future budget options. Residents were first informed of the program with a four colour multi-fold leaflet stuck in letterboxes and called How do we keep our City great? The blog has to confess it threw it in the recycling bin assuming the cartoon depictions of the city and various issues were just some sort of rather ham-fisted propaganda. Of course, the blog should have realised you always need to read the small print even if it is reversed out on a blue background for which you need your reading glasses. The bin was closer than the glasses so the blog never realised that the colourful brochure allegedly had some allegedly serious purpose.

Moreover, the blog has a relaxed attitude to the council. It wants to see the garbage collected; the nearby park maintained (although that took a herculean effort to achieve); have access to a well-stocked library; and, not to have to dodge too much dog poo on its morning walks along the beachfront. Beyond that the blog is committed to the concept that one of the hallmarks of true democracy – local or otherwise – is the right to be apathetic about it.

Unfortunately, as far as the council is concerned, that all changed due to a series events over a fortnight or so. First, the blog’s wife paid the Council rates and mentioned to the blog what they were this year. We all have various personal heuristic devices to ascertain the relative value of something to us and the rates bill failed on most of the yardsticks the blog commonly uses. Second, the blog had dinner with friends who had been involved in the ‘great city’ consultation and were infuriated by it all. The problem with being an elected (or indeed non-elected) official in the communities which make up COPP is that many of the residents and ratepayers have high level numeracy and analytical skills. The dinner friends, and another acquaintance, had done significant analytical work on the current budget and the results were ugly to say the least.

They found that employee costs increased by 45.86%, or at more than twice revenue/expenditure amounts, between 2009/10 and 2013/14. If the employee cost increases continued at the same rate employee costs would be more than 54% of Council expenditure. The 2013/14 Annual Report also showed the number of Senior Officers (those earning more than $133,000) increased to 38 from 25 in the previous financial year, and council’s outlay on salaries for this group of staff rose from $4.274m to $6.240 m in 2013/14 – not including the CEO’s salary. Two former councillors had also been analysing some of the outsourcing contracts and had concluded there was some evidence that they neither represented value for money nor enhanced productivity and effectiveness. Victorian council rates have been capped by the State Government. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have translated into caps on the number of ‘managers’ nor probably the number of managerialist documents they produce. The only saving grace of this may be that Don Watson will never be short of new material for his language books.

Policy at all levels of government is about choices and resource allocation priorities. That’s a complex process which is not served by the consultation opportunities offered by COPP to discuss the choices council faces. You get a chance on their online ‘have your say’ site to crudely rank your priorities on massive areas of council expenditure which need granular examination, not one to eight box ticking, and then you can submit ideas in a process which makes Twitter and Facebook ‘likes’ look like ideal places to hold serious discussions about War and Peace – both the novel itself and all the film and TV versions. If you don’t like this option you can front up to ‘pop-up stalls’ in locations around the city to have your say. The proud use of the ‘pop up’ concept is indicative of the superficial modernity of the entire process. And, as anyone who has ever visited their local councils’ information stalls have probably noticed – the staff smile a lot while rarely making a note of your suggestion unless it is the length of tweet. To top all this consultative activity off the council hired a market research company which probed community sentiment with profound questions such as “would you prefer council to cut services or increase rates?”

All of this came on top of a third issue – the publication of a study of COPP arts and culture policy options. Now this was a piece of work, largely evidence free, which suggested the council should take over one of Australia’s most successful multi-platform arts venues and replace it with council management or some ill-defined ‘hybrid’ model. The current operation is run by an independent volunteer board, with council representation, and is chaired by a distinguished scholar, arts practitioner and performer well respected throughout Australia. It is difficult to imagine some council bureaucrat doing a better job. Moreover, the rather risible nature of the report was illustrated by it seriously drawing a parallel between COPP’s capacity to raise funding through philanthropy and the capacity of the National Gallery of Victoria. Amongst the sparse hard data the report includes, the material on funding over recent years demonstrates that the council has already increased council arts staff funding (as a proportion of the arts budget) by 30% while only increasing total arts spending by 18%. The report also includes various proposals to increase the number of arts bureaucrats even further.

Putting aside governance and analytical questions there are important lessons for communicators here. First, invitations to participate in serious consultations about complex issues need to be designed and expressed as simply as possible. They ought not be confusing or gimmicky – both of which automatically undermine the process’ credibility. Second, there are high levels of cynicism about most governmental consultation processes. Dressing them up as up to the minute social media exercises merely adds to the cynicism. Third, the more complex issues get the more important genuine interactive face to face to face communications become. Fourth, no brochure design or fashionable channel selections are substitutes for substance.

COPPs efforts with the gasworks site contamination, its budgetary consultation and its arts and culture proposals will no doubt provide lots of communication students with postgrad research projects or text book case studies for undergrads. But how effective they will be amongst voters in this council election year is another question altogether.