Delivering best-practice community consultation in the ACT

Achieving best practice community consultation in the ACT means we need some evolution and some revolution. We need to improve some existing processes, and we need some bold new thinking. The Greens believe that strong community participation in decision making leads to better outcomes, which is why strengthened community consultation was included in our Parliamentary Agreement with the Labor Party. 

When it comes to new approaches, there are two proven methods that the Greens believe should be used in Canberra - citizens’ juries and participatory budgeting. The Greens are pleased that the upcoming ACT Budget will fund a citizens’ jury pilot and community engagement training for Government staff, recruit a participatory democracy expert and make a concerted effort to consult a more diverse cross-section of the community.

The Parliamentary Agreement also commits the Government to reviewing budget processes this year to improve community input. To do this the Government can learn from other cities. The decades long participatory budgeting process in Porto Alegre, Brazil, demonstrates that meaningful consultation can lead to much better outcomes for the community. Since 1989, citizens of Porto Alegre have attended public meetings where they make proposals and vote to decide how municipal funding is allocated. The city has decided how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on capital projects this way.

Numerous studies have found that this approach is strongly correlated with reduced poverty, improved access to water and sanitation, increased affordable housing stock and reduced infant mortality rates. Typically, citizens’ decisions have increased the proportion of funding allocated to low income groups and public amenities. This process has spread to over two hundred Brazilian cities.

Closer to home, Gabba Ward of Brisbane City Council has established its own participatory budgeting process. Local residents are empowered to vote in favour of or against community proposals for how to invest the $350,000 Public Space Infrastructure Fund. Proposals include basketball courts, drinking fountains, dog parks, children’s slides and picnic areas, and are subject to costing and feasibility assessments. The Council has committed to funding the most popular initiatives, truly investing in the choices of the community. 

A new community consultation model for Canberra should also integrate the International Association for Public Participation’s principles. These require that community members must be provided with detailed and timely information to give informed feedback and meaningfully participate in a consultation and a clear understanding of how their feedback has influenced a decision. In my conversations, community members constantly say that they don’t have the information they need and they don’t know how, or even if, their feedback influences government decisions. Adequate information and feedback loops are fundamental characteristics of good community engagement.

Too often the government and developers are their own worst enemy, either through malintent, or poor strategy. The public housing proposals for Wright and Weston Creek are a clear example of how not to do it. A freedom of information request exposed the bureaucracy’s intention to lodge development applications before conducting any consultation with the local community - a clear violation of best practice approaches. Thankfully the government changed the plan and is now talking to the community before lodging the DAs, but imagine how much better this could have been had they started differently?

The Yarralumla Brickworks development provides another example. After several failed attempts at consultation, government actually invited community to the table to incorporate community expectations in to the brief. The process moved forward relatively quickly from that point, showing that genuine co-design creates better community outcomes and certainty for developers. 

The Greens are very pleased that stage 2 of light rail is going ahead after last year’s election, as we believe it will bring great sustainability benefits for Canberra. To get the best outcome for our community, we now need the best possible consultation process.  There are some challenging choices that have to be made, for example, the questions of which route to take through the Parliamentary Triangle and whether to go to the hospital. These warrant strong community discussion, as each option has benefits and trade-offs, but it’s not clear whether the community has enough information to discuss these properly. Light rail will certainly drive urban consolidation, so proposed locations must be properly thought though and discussed widely with the community. Certainly more information on the implications of options would enhance the quality of community engagement and feedback.

The Greens are pleased to see the Government starting to make good on its commitment to “better, more representative consultation” with the ACT community in the budget context. For this to occur, the Government must ensure that community members have a genuine influence over decisions and are provided with the information needed to meaningfully participate and contribute. Furthermore, the Greens believe the government should commit to participatory budgeting trials in 2018–19. This would be a significant next step towards best-practice consultation and would allow more diverse community voices to have an equitable say.