Response to Council’s draft community engagement policy and framework

Council is to be commended for recognising that “community engagement is an important part of local democracy, fostering community cohesion, pride of place and active participation in civic life”(Policy, p. 1) and for moving from the notion of consultation to community engagement (Framework, p. 7). The draft Policy and Framework are a starting point for an ongoing process of increasing Council’s expertise in community engagement, and ensuring that the organisation culture is committed to community engagement.

Definition of community engagement

The draft policy defines community engagement by The City of Newcastle as being

A process through which The City of Newcastle:
5.2.1 Communicates information, educates or gives advice to the community
5.2.2 Seeks community input and/or involvement with the objective to inform Council’s decision-making process
5.2.3 Promotes active citizenship, community interaction and a sense of community (Policy p. 3).

This definition suggests a fairly broad focus. It addresses two key aspects of community engagement: horizontal and vertical community engagement. Horizontal community engagement involves community members being engaged with each other, while vertical community engagement involves an external organisation (e.g., Council) engaging community members. Effective community engagement, particularly by organisations like a Council, encourages both forms of community engagement. Council has a number of excellent community engagement projects (e.g., Make Your Place grants and the Big Draw) that promote horizontal community engagement and help bring community members together.

The discussion of the Newcastle 2030 Community Strategic Plan (Framework, p. 5) also recognises the breadth of community engagement. For example the Strategic Plan includes the following objectives relating to community engagement:

  • Active citizen engagement in local planning and decision-making processes and a shared responsibility for achieving our goals;
  • Considered decision-making based on collaborative, transparent and accountable leadership;
  • Integrated, sustainable, long-term planning for Newcastle and the region;
  • A welcoming community that cares and looks after each other – where diversity is embraced, everyone is valued and has the opportunity to contribute and belong;
  • Active and healthy communities with physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing (Framework, p. 5).

Unfortunately, the draft documents do not go on to address horizontal community engagement and only focuses on community engagement in planning and decision making. In fact the Framework has a different and more limited definition of community engagement:

The City of Newcastle has defined community engagement as: An important process of fostering relationships between Council and the community, whereby Council shares information, consults, involves, collaborates, and actively enhances community capability to influence and shape the planning and delivery of services and Council decisions. It is not a single activity but a way of building a stronger understanding of the community in Newcastle (p. 7).

Either the documents need to be renamed to show that they are only addressing community engagement in decision making and planning, or it needs to address all three areas of community engagement it includes in its definition.

Suggestion 1.       That the Policy and Framework be expanded so it includes a broader discussion of community engagement or that the title of them be changed to “community engagement in planning and decision making”.

Suggestion 2.       That the definition of community engagement in the Framework be consistent with the policy, and that both the Policy and Framework state that their focus is on the first two components of the definition (if the focus remains on planning and decision making).

Scope

Not only does it not include horizontal community engagement, but the policy specifically excludes “Development Applications, amendments to the local Environment Plan and Development Control Plan” (Policy p. 2). These are often fairly contentious issues requiring input community engagement; it thus seems strange that they are excluded. Even if there are additional legislative requirements, a community engagement policy should cover a range of situations. The policy could recognise the additional requirements (e.g., through an appendix outlining the additional requirements) while still incorporating these areas into the policy. If this is a document that informs the public, it would be good to be as complete as possible.

Suggestion 3.       That the scope include Development Applications, amendments to the local Environment Plan and Development Control Plan and acknowledges there are additional requirements for these areas.

Suggestion 4.       That consideration be given to including a summary of the additional requirements in an appendix to the Policy.

Empower

The Policy and Framework draw heavily on the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) spectrum of public participation. I have real concerns about how they treat the top level of participation “Empower”. In empower, the public participation goal is “To place final decision-making in the hands of the public” and the promise to the public is “We will implement what you decide.”

The Framework slightly broadens the participation goal by making it “To place final decision-making and/or devolved budgets in the hands of the public” (emphasis added) but the Policy restricts the definition:

Empower The elected Council is responsible for making policy, strategic and budget decisions. With respect to the Policy, empower refers to community development and community capacity building initiatives. Council provides opportunities and resources for communities to contribute their skills and talents (p. 3).

The policy thus reframes empower in terms of community development and community capacity building rather than decision making. The Framework suggests that empower “has limited application” and weakens the IAPs’ original intent:

Community members in this area of the spectrum are empowered to become more involved in building their own future to foster and sustain positive change. For the most part, it sits at an operational level rather than a decision-making level.

Residents, visitors, property owners, businesses, Council and other agencies working in partnership, are provided with the skills, information, authority and resources to deliberate on projects and issues, presenting recommendations, or make part or final decisions.

It’s about supporting the community by bringing people together to build community capacity through action.

In local government the elected Council is responsible for making policy, strategic and budget decisions. As such, empower has limited application and refers to community development and community capacity building initiatives whereby Council provides opportunities and resources for communities to contribute their skills and talents (p.18).

At the workshop on the draft policy and framework, a Council staff member stated that council is “trying to focus on empower a lot more”. I commend this commitment, but suspect it was referring to a broader definition than the specific use of empower in the IAP2 spectrum. While I strongly support Council’s role in community development and community capacity building, and this could be part of the discussion about empower, the current discussion of empower does not capture what this IAP2 level of public participation is about. Making recommendations is generally not part of empower. Empower is where final decision making is placed in the hands of the public. The promise to the public is not “we will consider your recommendations” it is “we will implement what you decide”.

There are many examples where Councils do empower the community to make decisions and this option should not be excluded in the Policy and Framework.

Suggestion 5.       That the material on empower in the Policy and Framework be re-written so they are more consistent with the IAP2 spectrum.

In the Engagement Brief template (Framework, p. 25-26) there are only four engagement levels: Inform, Consult, Involve and Collaborate. Empower is not even listed as an option. This is partly because Council has largely redefined Empower as being about community development and community capacity building. The original intent of the IAP2 spectrum is quite consistent with Councils commitment to community development and community capacity building, but they are not the same. The engagement brief should remind staff (and the public) that there are five levels of engagement, not four.

Suggestion 6.       That the Engagement Level in the Engagement Brief template (p. 25) include Empower.

Creating a culture of community engagement in Council

I recognise that creating a culture of community engagement is an ongoing process and that the draft Policy and Framework are a step forward in creating this culture. While there are excellent examples of community engagement within Council, there are also many areas where there needs to be a significant change.

A couple of years ago, I asked a fairly senior staff member (with responsibilities directly related to community engagement) how Transition Newcastle could work more closely with Council to help implement the Community Strategic Plan. The answer I received was essentially that 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 the staff member meant, but I certainly received the impression that there were limited opportunities for us to work with Council. (Other people I have spoken to have had similar experiences.) This sort of attitude and response need to change.

I would encourage Council to consider how a commitment to creating a culture of community engagement can be captured in the Policy and Framework (and more importantly in practice). For example, the Commitment to community engagement (Policy, p. 5) starts with:

Council is committed to understanding the needs and expectations of the community and delivering on those needs by
6.1.1      Establishing service standards in a number of key areas and regularly measuring the performance of Council against these standards;
6.1.2      Ensuring all projects consider community engagement activities and incorporate into project plans where appropriate…

This takes quite an operational approach to community engagement and a fairly narrow view of community engagement. When Council has brought out people like Jim Diers and Peter Kenyon, they have emphasised the importance of focusing on community strengths rather than community deficits. There is scope to capture this type of an approach in the Commitment to community engagement. If strengths-based approaches were at the heart of Council’s work with the community, a culture of community engagement is more likely. If the community is seen as being a reservoir of skills, assets and resources, staff are more likely to see the value in engaging the community.

Suggestion 7.       That the Commitment to Community Engagement (Policy, p. 5) be written so that it is more strengths-based.

The Engagement Process (Framework, p. 24 ff) is also very operational and does not promote a culture of community engagement as much as it might. It runs the risk of furthering limiting the meaning of community engagement by having a focus on consultation. For example the opening sentence only refers to consultation and not engagement:

1. Public participation need identified
1.0 Service unit identifies need for public participation. Initial discussion with community consultation team. Add project to the Consultation Forward Program. Monthly report to the Executive Leadership Team of all forward public participation activities (p.24).

This is only relevant to one form of community engagement and there is an emphasis on the community consultation team rather than on creating a culture of community engagement. While this could be one approach to community engagement, the framework needs to recognise that there are other approaches as well.

Suggestion 8.       That the Engagement Process (Framework, p. 24 ff) focus more on creating a culture of community engagement.

The Engagement Process also only lists five engagement tools which is likely to limit the focus of staff when considering engagement options. If this was an open-ended question (possibly referring staff to p. 28 of the Framework) staff would be encouraged to think more broadly.

Suggestion 9.       That the Engagement Tools in the Engagement Process (Framework, p. 27) be worded as an open-ended question.

Community engagement as a two-way process

One of the things that differentiate community engagement from marketing and promotion, is that community engagement is a two-way process. While not explicitly stating it, the Policy and Framework recognise that community engagement needs to be two-way process. As indicated above, Transition Newcastle is keen to work with Council on ways of implementing the Community Strategic Plan, but we aren’t how we can do this in the most effective way. For example, our current project, the Transition Streets Challenge, helps to meet a number of priorities identified in the Community Strategic Plan. Finding the best people to talk to about potential collaboration can be quite challenging. It would be very helpful to have a clearer idea of how community groups can initiate conversations and discussion with Council.

Suggestion 10.    That, in order to emphasise the two-way nature of community engagement, the Policy or Framework include information about ways in which community organisations and members can initiate discussion or projects with Council.

Conclusion

While the draft Policy and Framework are important, the most important things are to have staff and Councillors who are committed to community engagement and who are take feedback and community input seriously. I hope that Council will continue to explore how they can engage the community in all levels of its work, and look forward to seeing the way in which the Policy and Framework are adapted based on the feedback received.

NOTE: This submission was written by me as an individual, but draws on my research, teaching and practice in community engagement at the University of Newcastle’s Family Action Centre and my voluntary work with Transition Newcastle.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

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  3. Vertical and horizontal community engagement
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  6. Shout Out youth forum – reflections

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
This entry was posted in Working with communities and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Response to Council’s draft community engagement policy and framework

  1. Thanks Salvador
    Empowerment is a problematic term and concept. I agree it can be quite paternalistic, but I don’t think it always has to be. I think of the work of Freire (e.g. Pedagogy of the Oppressed) and I don’t think that is paternalistic but to me it is all about empowerment. I think it comes down to the motives and the process.
    Regards
    Graeme

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  2. Great ideas Graeme!
    I totally agree with you on these comments. My only contribution to this discussion is that community engagement is about partnering with people, communities and service providers, opening up spaces for sharing, learning and working together, informing policy development and structural change in organisations. I personally do not like the term empower, it is paternalistic and top down approach. In fact being a social justice passionate the term is A COLONIALIST ONE. As people we are smart and intelligent enough to deal with difference, limitations of knowledge and resources, but if we are aware and have the means, we do not need to be given the power and then be empower by those who say they have the power.

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