These plans are supposed to be tailored by the needs and aspirations of the communities each council is elected to serve. Their contents and priorities should be shaped after extensive community engagement. Indeed the LGA requires, as a minimum, the Special Consultative Procedure to be used to develop a Long-Term Plan. The LGA also talks about these plans providing a basis for accountability between a council and its communities. A worthy ambition.
Given the importance that a long-term plan plays in shaping a council’s decision-making and priority setting, with flow-on impacts on the levels of rates set to fund those, it is surprising that so few community members take the time to become involved in any associated discussion or debate.
Formal submissions will be sought, usually through advertisements published in newspapers or on a council’s website. Public meetings will be scheduled and held in venues and at times that work best for elected councillors. Many councils will know with a high degree of certainty in advance of a draft plan being released who they will receive submissions from and what those will say. But how representative are those submissions of wider community ideas and opinions?
It may be argued that if there is no interest in or discussion about the content of a long-term plan, then it must be a fair representation of community views. It may also be argued that additional efforts to connect with communities will impose additional demands on a council’s time and money for no apparent additional benefit in terms of information received. That may be true, but what about the connectedness a council should be aiming to have with its communities, particularly the basis of accountability the LGA says should be provided?
Long-Term Plans are large, hard to read documents built to satisfy the needs of auditors. It is not surprising that very few people, other than auditors, actually read them. Councils invest time summarising these into smaller documents that may be put into letterboxes with the outpourings of Big Box Retailers and real estate agents. Adaptations of these summary documents may also get placed on council websites where analytics will reveal they attract scant interest from cyberspace inhabitants.
This could be because community members believe that councils really aren’t interested in listening to them. If they were, then they may be more active in creating opportunities or using engagement tools that communities understand and are comfortable with. There is an abundance of tools that can be used, either for face-to-face interactions as well as online. Citizens shouldn’t have to make a formal written or verbal submission. Such measures are a barrier to engagement, as the numbers of people using those, as a percentage of all community members, shows.
This isn’t a challenge that is particularly difficult to improve on. All that is required is a little imagination and a willingness to listen to communities – earlier rather than later – and show them how what they said was considered and shaped the final outcomes. Councils need to focus on delivering simple messages that are clearly expressed and easily understood, particularly by hard-to-reach community members, such as people with language disabilities. Pictures and infographics work really well as communication enhancers.
From 1 December 2014 all 78 councils will be required to have a significance and engagement policy in place. It will be interesting to observe what changes will be seen in council community engagement, particularly annual plan engagement, from 2015 and onwards.
The public should have a big stake in what sort of community they want for themselves, their children and their grandchildren. Their willingness to contribute to their “ideal” is greatly influenced by the contribution that they are able to make to the long term planning for their community.
Fair enough. But isn’t this what already happens? Regrettably no.
However recent changes to the LGA relating to significance and engagement creates an opportunity for councils to rethink their approach about how they interact with communities. This may act as a catalyst to change how councils make decisions by acknowledging that communities are important and can make a valuable contribution, particularly if successful community outcomes are desired.
This would mean looking beyond just legal compliance to good practice processes. In an LTP development this would involve the community in deciding what should go into the LTP in the first place and being engaged through the various steps ultimately leading to the more formal special consultative procedure consultation at a later stage of development prior to adoption.
This effectively relegates the special consultative procedure to a tick-the-box exercise, as with good prior community engagement, all of the important decisions will have already been made with the full involvement of the affected community.