Targeting affected communities
Recent changes to the Local Government Act in Victoria require Councils to develop an Engagement Policy. A central feature of this new challenge is to ensure affected communities are represented in the engagement. This requirement is different from Local Government Act requirements in other states. Penny takes a closer look at how the concept of “engagement” has developed in Local Government legislation across Australia to better understand the different levels of participation that might make up strong, effective engagement practices.
Victoria’s Local Government Act 2020 is held up as the most ambitious and comprehensive reform of local government in the state for three decades. The revamp has the goal of improving local government democracy, accountability and the services provided to all communities.
The Local Government Act 2020 is presented as a principles-based act, promising to remove red tape – unnecessarily prescriptive regulations and legislation. But on closer reading, legislators have hedged their bets, having a dollar each way. I’ll discuss this further later in the blog, but first let’s consider the context for this change.
From a historical perspective
Engagement is a relatively new requirement in legislation. Consultation, a subset of engagement activities, first nudged its way into local government legislation in the 70s. In those days, consultation activity was generally linked to land use decisions and its minimum requirements were prescribed in statute; stuff like the proposal notification requirements, length of consultation, public meeting or hearing requirements.
In the 90s local government legislation continued to evolve, taking a more aspirational approach… but only in some states (e.g. Vic, NSW, Queensland). Broad statements on consultation and engagement started to pepper the early purpose and principles sections of local government statute.
It has only been in the last few years that consultation and engagement frameworks have matured to the point where authorities and communities have shifted from asking “have you?” to asking, “how effective was it?”.
Frustration with engagement levels
Not surprisingly a major influence on the recent Local Government Act changes was the reported frustration communities felt with the levels of engagement by councils on important decisions.
In response deliberative community engagement methods were mooted in a number of discussion papers released by DELWP, and this specialised approach to decision-making made it into the Act. Deliberative engagement is now specifically required for development of the Community Vision, Council Plan, Financial Plan and Asset Plan ( s.55(2)(g)) . It is important to note that this is a minimum requirement. Councils can use deliberative engagement processes to respond to any gnarly question.
I go back to my earlier comments on the LGA changes being a buck each way, because while the policy sections has elements of prescription in it, the community engagement principles section is aspirational saying “participants in community engagement must be representative of the persons and groups affected by the matter that is the subject of the community engagement;” (s.56 (c ))
All Victorian councils are required to adopt a community engagement policy under the Local Government Act 2020. Photo: Nenad Petrović
Getting representative engagement – a big challenge
The broad requirement for representation encompasses all engagement processes, not just deliberative engagement where representation is ensured through participant selection.
So, what can councils do to ensure this representation in other engagement activity?
1. Councils will need to design engagement plans and programmes that target different communities. Gathering information about the characteristics of “affected” communities will help with prioritisation and targeting. Examples of these characteristics might be the size and location/density of subpopulations (see Community Profiles and Social Atlases), the socio-demographic and socio-economic profiles of these smaller communities (see Communities of Interest ). Councils are also charged with considering future populations so a forecasting tool can help with this knowledge down to a small area level.
2. Councils should track and identify/categorise those who take part in engagement activities to assess how effective they have been with their targeting.
3. Review engagement results and augment gaps in representation through other means e.g community panels.
To finish, while deliberative processes are a proven method of ensuring accurate representation of community needs and desires, council consultations and engagement activities should still reserve a place for anyone and everyone to have their say.
A bit about deliberative engagement
Community engagement policies are required to be adopted by March 2021.
The LGA2020 (Vic) Act requires councils to “include deliberative engagement practices … capable of being applied to the development of the Community Vision, Council Plan, Financial Plan and Asset Plan.” ( s.55(2)(g)) in their policies.
This is the first time deliberative engagement has been included in legislation. What is it? It is a focussed method of engagement that gathers a balanced community perspective and generates a broadly acceptable solution.
Deliberation only focuses on the really tough issues because it is resource intensive.
The engagement needs a clear primary question. For a Community Vision, an example might be “what is your vision for our district and what should our priorities be to get there?”
The deliberating team is selected randomly to reflect the characteristics of “affected” communities. This approach circumvents the ‘squeaky wheels’ – arguing power of interest groups and those with more resources. It ensures minorities and harder-to-reach communities are represented.
The deliberative process is externally facilitated and commits a lot of time and resource to ensuring participants have a strong grasp of the issue from all perspectives, so that all affected communities are represented in the discussion.
Once fully informed, the deliberative team generate and weigh up options. They come to an agreement (80% must say yah), then report their final judgement to council.
This collaborative effort should be broadly acceptable by the community because it has been developed with all perspectives considered. This should give the council confidence, and as such it behoves the council to generally accept and act on the recommendation.
It is this clear judgement that sets deliberative practice apart from general engagement which typically focussed more on issues/views/opinions-identification. Fewer resources are committed in general engagement practices and participants, usually self-selected, may or may not represent all those affected by the proposed decision and won’t necessarily have a truly informed knowledge of the subject.
Demographic Expertise .id’s demographic experts are here to support Councils identifying and engaging with affected community cohorts. We offer training and advice to all subscribers of Community Profile and our other demographic tools, plus bespoke consulting (including multi-variate mapping) for more complex needs.
If you work in Local Government and would like any assistance, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.