Who responds to invitations for public consultation? Demographic analysis shows they are more likely to be male, older, Anglo Celtic, well-educated and to have a higher income. Missing are the submissions from the young, single parent families and ethnic minorities. This affects the agendas that are put forward and skews priorities. How do we achieve both better participation AND representation?
My April blog, “Finding the hard to reach in our communities”,discussed the goals and outcomes of public consultation. There are many, though the relative priority (and recognition) of outcomes can vary between local authorities. It’s essentially a philosophical argument that trips a tenuous line between the values of participation and the importance of representation.
I think that there is a need for balance between the two categories.
In the interests of social cohesion and social capital found in the council/community relationship, the participation outcomes are incredibly important. Democracy has depended on a communal sense of identity, and that is something more and more difficult to maintain in an increasingly diverse society.
Yet representing local community interests is the fundamental role of local government. While the communication relationships between citizens and council are becoming more participative, the final decision remains with the elected members. So for consultation activity to have any representational validity there is a critical need to capture the characteristics of submitters.
Demographic characteristics are a good place to start. Why?
Well we know that submitters do not usually reflect the community makeup. They are typically more likely to be male, older, Anglo Celtic, well-educated and to have a higher income. City dwellers are less likely to participate than people from rural areas.
Research has shown links between demographic characteristics and submitter’s agendas. For example, those with a higher income are more likely to have concerns about environmental issues, men are more likely to approach issues from a scientific/rational point of view. Missing are the submissions from the young, and single parent families who are more likely to have affordability concerns, or the minority ethnicities who are more likely to comment on cultural issues.
This means that the agendas contained in submissions are not likely to be representative because we know that the characteristics of submitters are not representative. It’s easy enough to see how the relative priorities of the community are skewed in the consultation process and adding to this is the fact that most councils (both politically and staff) have the similar atypical characteristics to submitters.
At the very least, demographic characteristics do give some insight into the likely agendas of submitters. For those of you involved in active communication programmes with the community, demographic characteristics also give an insight into preferred communication channels.
For all of the apparent weaknesses of consultation, at least when looking at representation outcomes, I think that there is likely to be still more consultation in the future, not less. Citizens are increasingly expecting to have their say, and LGNZ and the Department of Internal Affairs have confirmed rising submission numbers. Unfortunately, higher submission rates do not translate into better representation. For that to happen, more specific targeting of demographic groups, identification of submitter characteristics, and the proactive capture of representative comment is needed.
If you have any thoughts or tips how councils can better represent their citizens , please leave us a comment.
To access detailed demographic information about local communities in Australia and New Zealand, access .id’s free demographic resource centre at www.id.com.au