By Elizabeth Hughes, Strategy & Communication.
“Tell us your views. Make your voice heard. Your views matter. We want to hear what you have to say to inform our decision-making.”
However – not really. Certainly not in any significant kind of way. Not when the leaders, technical staff, number crunchers, strategists, and consultants have spent the past 12-18 months coming up with what are, in reality, the likely best proposals.
By the time the Consultation Document is written and the council is seeking the views of the community, most recommendations are already completely bound up by planning and funding decisions that have previously been made or steering toward a pathway that is Hobson’s choice.
Therefore it is incredibly difficult for them to fully listen to and act upon, the wishes of people in their communities via the LTP consultation process.
This is not to say that the decisions are 100 percent pre-determined. However, with the amount of work that has already occurred to ensure there is an audit approved balance between the well-beings and the dollars, there is honestly not really much wriggle room left.
Appealing to ordinary people to make submissions that might shift the inevitable course of action as outlined in the Consultation Document is inviting both disappointment and disenchantment from even the most dedicated local government junkie.
And, frankly, the same can be said for any draft proposal, plan or project the council puts out for consultation. By the time it has reached that point, it is usually too late to have much meaningful influence at all.
What most grassroots constituents are not aware of is the right time to be influencing happens many months, and sometimes years, before the Consultation Document is actually printed. And most councils are not geared (no matter how well-intentioned they are) to operate in this way.
The Local Government Act imposes on councils the need to go through a hugely prescriptive LTP consultation process and has placed false expectations in the wider community that this is the place to contribute to democratic decision-making.
When in fact this process does the complete opposite and stifles it.
Because they are creatures of statute, for councils to genuinely be able to listen to the community and inform decisions, the legislation would need to put the emphasis on engagement processes rather than the bureaucratic and auditing monstrosity that is the LTP consultation requirements.
A nod to this in the legislation is the need for councils to produce a Significance and Engagement Policy – but most of these are a tick-box exercise (many still not even amended since 2017).
And having the Policy does not mean the elected members or staff are any keener to allow ordinary folk to influence real decision-making.
Unfortunately, this is an area of council activity that is woefully under-resourced. This is not to dismiss the many wonderful and notable examples of great community engagement but rather to note that these are the exceptions rather than the rule.
If this was not the case, local government would be much more valued, appreciated and understood because people would have trust and confidence in their decision-making. The evidence says otherwise.
Shifting the dial and enabling much greater ability for people to be participants in influencing outcomes would require a transformation in the way that local government works. This would mean much more commitment to the business of listening rather than telling, and much more funding devoted to empowerment of citizens than reliance on formal bureaucratic systems. This is unimaginable under the current paradigm.
On the plus side, most councils do an exceptionally good job of meeting the legislative requirements around preparation of the Long Term Plan – even with the extraordinarily high bar that is set.
The incredible (unbelievable to a lay person) amount of work that is required to prepare for the triennial “conversation with the community” Consultation Documents and how about Consultation Documents that say; “the legislation says we have to give you choices so we came up with our best recommendation plus an option that we know is never going to fly”.
Oh, and we’d like lots of submissions to show we tried hard to get feedback and are prepared to listen – even though mostly we already know what we are going to do”.
Not quite as catchy I suppose?