I attended a Ward Forum hosted by Newcastle City Council through Newcastle Voice this week. Council holds occasional forums in each of their four wards to “provide opportunities for local residents talk about the opportunities and challenges facing their ward.” It sounds like they are trialling a more inclusive format and wanting to encourage community discussion.
The facilitator described the process as a World Cafe, but it was pretty different to the World Cafes I have facilitated and the way they were introduced at the Art of Hosting training I attended. At the same time, what it is called is not nearly as important as whether or not it was a useful process.
Before the evening, we had been invited to register and identify any issues we were particularly concerned about. Will (from Transition Newcastle) and I had said we were interested in sustainability in relation to Council’s draft delivery program and operational plan. The forum started with the facilitator giving an overview of the process and introducing the topics for discussion at each of three tables:
- Local heritage and planning
- Local traffic
- Local works.
There would be two rounds of discussion and we were invited to change tables after the first round so that we would be involved in two topics. When Will asked what about our issue, she explained that she had considered creating a fourth table but not enough people had indicated a topic related to sustainability to be worth it. She invited us to join the other discussions, so we joined the table discussing local heritage and planning.
At our table there were12 people: two Councillors, two or three Council staff, somebody from the local paper and the rest of us were residents. After quick introductions one of the people at our table offered to get the ball rolling. She essentially had a prepared notes on the importance of retaining the heritage and character of suburbs with a village feel (e.g., New Lambton and Lambton). She spoke for about 15 minutes. It seemed most of the other residents (besides Will and I) were there because of this issue and what she had to say was quite interesting. The rest of the first half hour was based on this issue – mainly in what I would call a question and answer format. Residents asked the Councillors or Council staff questions, and the Councillors asking residents questions. It didn’t really get to conversation (which is what I associate with World Cafe) but I think it was quite a useful discussion. I suspect it was a helpful format for the people involved.
After half an hour people were invited to change tables. One of the Councillors and the Council staff stayed at our table as did Will, two other residents and I. Two other Councillors and a number of residents joined us so we had around 12 people again. I’m not sure if anybody else was asked but Will and I were asked by the facilitator if we were going to move, but we explained that we hadn’t had a chance to raise anything yet and so we thought we would see what happened in round two.
Another resident raised an issue in relation to Blackbutt (a large bushland park) and then one of the Councillors encouraged us to have a say. We essentially said that we were concerned that despite sustainability (including climate change and peak oil) being given a large emphasis in the Community Strategic Plan, we hadn’t really seen this translated into action in the draft delivery program and operational plan. We were interested to know how climate change and peak oil were being addressed and also how Transition Newcastle could work with Council to move forward on these issues. (As an aside when I asked how we could work with Council, the answer I received from a Council staff person was essentially that we couldn’t. Community organisations played an important role in working on their issues and Council had their own priorities. I’m not sure if that is what she meant, but it was certainly the impression I received.)
Once again there wasn’t really much conversation but there was some (to me) useful discussion mainly in the question and answer format. Another person raised another issue and it was time to finish the second round. To finish the evening a Councillor from each table gave a brief summary of the discussion from both rounds. I thought that the Councillor from our table (Michael Osborne) gave a very fair summary of the discussion.
To me World Cafe is about encouraging conversations in small groups around important questions. I don’t think the format used at the Ward Forum did that, but I think the format was successful in allowing a number of people to raise issues with Council. It would be good to think about what to do when some people want to raise an issue that other people haven’t identified. I wonder how many people would have elected to come to a discussion around climate change and peak oil if it had been an option. I honestly don’t know.
At times I think it could be useful to have more of a conversational approach in small groups to consider specific questions, but I suspect the format they had was more useful for a Ward Forum where the aim was to allow residents to raise issues of concern with Council.
From our point of view, it was worth going as we learnt about a couple of things Council is doing around sustainability and we made some useful connections. As a result of the meeting, we have been invited to meet with the Council Environment Committee next month.