By Elizabeth Hughes.
In the latest LGNZ perceptions survey there are some revealing and sorry statistics about how the public see local government. Among them is the measure of how much they perceive local government listens to and / or makes it easy to engage with them. When elected members and staff were asked this, they rated this at 56 percent. When the public were asked, they said 27 percent.
As to whether or not councils provide enough opportunities for people to have their say, 73 percent of elected members and staff agreed they did. Only 43 percent of the public did.
This shows how disconnected ordinary citizens are from efforts made by councils to engage their communities. More importantly, it demonstrates the disconnect between people in local government and people in the communities they serve.
Councils all around New Zealand are currently preparing their Long Term Plans (LTPs) – and perhaps the most significant triennial engagement they undertake. Hopefully, somewhere in the mix will be discussions about the LTP “Consultation Document” that will eventually fall out the end.
The Consultation Document is the material that ultimately is meant to tell the story of where you’re headed, what your priorities are, possibly some choices to be made, and the financial narrative that will enable it all to happen.
Surely potential blockbusters!
However, most Consultation Documents tend to be second only to Annual Reports as the most overwritten, disengaging, tedious, overdesigned, confusing and self-gratifying material councils produce.
Maybe the constraints prescribed by legislation, ultimately creating a document that seems to be written for auditors rather than humans, just make it too hard. This could be why the material produced ends up being just a long-winded way of saying: “Here’s what we’ve decided to do for the next 10 years and you can read the small print if you want. You can even write to us and try to convince us otherwise. But, just so you know, it’s pretty much sorted.”
Going back to the perceptions survey statistics, it is likely that while you believe you are doing a great job of consulting, the audience it is intended for does not. Here are a few tips that might help:
Tip 1 Less is more
Ironically, there is a lot that could be said about this. Where you have written 400 words about something you think is important and needs explaining, halve it and then halve it again. And again.
In other words, don’t write for local government train-spotters or for your own need to justify. If people want more information, just make sure they know where to get it. Keep it simple.
Tip 2 Agree what success looks like before you begin
Is your council’s success measured by simply delivering a Consultation Document that is ticked off by the auditors, on time, and with no mistakes? Or is success to be measured by the number and / or the quality of submissions?
Does a low number of responses mean you got the pre-engagement phase about right (and therefore your LTP is spot-on)? Or does it mean no-one cares or understands?
How will you know the Consultation Document tells the LTP story in a way that actually connects with your community?
Tip 3 Tell a story
Stand back from the detail and agree the overall ‘story’ your LTP is trying to tell. This story should be less than 100 words (see Tip 1).
Tip 3 (a) Start now
By writing the story now (noting that it may amend slightly in the coming months as your pre-engagement is completed), you will have the ‘joined-up-ness’ that enables your community (including elected members and staff) to make sense of what the council is planning / doing.
Tip 4 Elected members must feature
It’s their LTP so they should be visibly leading it. The Consultation Document, or whatever medium you are using, should enable them to really communicate – projecting and receiving in equal measure. Pictures, video, quotes – even dissenting views – enable elected members ownership of the process.
Tip 5 Be relevant
Even with a 100-word LTP story, there are myriad ways to tell it.
This article was first published in the October 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.