Sunday, 11 September 2011

Q & A - round two

How could you have an impact on getting the City of Fremantle to take better care of the small things?

One thing that is almost certain to have gotten under the skin of anyone who's a resident or a trader in our fair city is the lack of attention to the small things. I'm talking about every bin in the city centre overflowing like a smelly Mt Vesuvius on public holidays, street lights out for weeks on end, the tortuously worded fine print on the residential parking permit. (I caught my wife flexing her facial muscles into all sorts of odd contortions after she read it - when I asked what she was doing, "checking I haven't had a stroke and forgotten how to understand English" was the answer.)

So, what can be done to improve the City's strike rate on getting the small things right? (Clue to any councillors reading: it's not forming a working group.) A change in attitude would be a great start - in essence, bringing back the care factor.

The Captain

One of the most successful initiatives I've seen in my professional experience was the introduction of a person whose sole job was to walk around the city centre streets, engaging with visitors, residents and traders, observing what was going on and (above all) listening. He dressed in a safari suit, wore a flourishing moustache had the lovably goofy title of 'the Captain'. He was on duty for only a couple of hours at a time.

After his forays into the city, the Captain would return to our office and report back. "There're bins that haven't been emptied in such-and-such lane." He might say. Or, "I spoke with someone who got a parking ticket because she misinterpreted a sign - and she's right, it's not very clearly marked." Or, "those louts are hanging around X Street again."

What a great thing it was for the town that the Captain was around.

I believe that any similar initiative would be a great start to bringing back the care factor to Freo.

What's your experience with the community consultation process?

My mother was fond of giving me the following piece of advice when I was growing up: "You have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in that proportion." I believe that this should be writ large in the office of anyone engaged in community consultation.

The Process

The community consultation process, like many of the arms of bureaucracy, has both good and bad incarnations. At it's worst, community consultation is conducted in a perfunctory, tick-the-box-and-move-on way. Unfortunately for all involved the process will often go like this:

- It begins with bureaucrats investing a prolonged period of resources and time forming their opinions and getting them down on paper in the form of a draft master plan.
- The community is then presented with this draft document and is basically given one shot to critique it. The opportunity to make significant additions or changes to the direction of the plan is, by this stage, pretty limited, but people are given the false expectation that their input is going to be acted upon.
- When the finalised plan is put before Council and people discover their comments have been disregarded they feel - justifiably - disillusioned.

A perfect example of this was the City of Freo's consultation on the 2010-2015 Strategic Plan. I went along to the workshop they held to get the community's feedback on the plan. And just what did the City of Fremantle do with the information we gave them? I think the fact that the plan was approved shortly afterwards without any real change says it all.

Well, that's a couple of hours of my life I wouldn't mind having back. If I wanted to be asked my opinions on something only to be patted on the head and ignored, I'd go clothes shopping with my wife.

Better engagement

I believe that, with community engagement, timing is everything. Imagine what could happen if, rather than getting the community involved in the final stages of the process, they were instead asked to participate from the very beginning - in the stages of creation?

Before, in fact, Councillors and administrators had spent 6 to 12 months making up their minds and were still receptive to new ideas?

In my professional capacity as a strategic urban planner and place maker in local government, I have first hand experience of how beneficial involving the community early on in a project can be. And yes, in my office there's a home-made poster stuck on the wall that says, "You have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in that proportion." (Thanks, mum.)

What would you do about anti-social behaviour?

I received an email about this topic last week that really got me thinking. It's too long to include in a Q & A, but I'll post it as a separate piece tomorrow.


  1. What do you say to David's Engwicht's assertion that comunnity consulation should be scrapped; it's a failed experiment; and that it's only a forum for axe-grinders? (Paraphrashing David Engwicht here.)

  2. I'd say it sounds like another example of 90% of the people missing out because of 10% of those people with an axe to grind. I like a lot of what David has to say, but in this instance I still believe that there are enormous benefits of involving people.

    I'd like to see people being involved early in the lifecycle of projects. I'll be posting more about my ideas on this topic in the coming days.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. Hi, Michael. I think you said that community engagement is important. I also think you said that working groups, or similar, are not a good idea. Working groups and similar (committees etc ...) are often composed of people from the community, representing their people. The City of Fremantle's working groups are like this. Were you aware of that? How would you tackle this potential conflict - if I've interpreted your position correctly, here? Thanks :)

  4. Thanks for the comment.

    I believe that working groups have their place and serve a purpose. (Although I would be uneasy with saying the members are 'representing their people', because they're unelected.) So, to clarify, I support the idea of working groups, and I also think they could be managed more effectively in the City of Fremantle.

    I'll be expanding on my experience as part of a City of Fremantle working group in a later post. Thanks again for your interest.