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Community engagement

Our current Council, advised by the administration, has created a fortress mentality. There is a wall between the decisions that are made and the community on whose behalf those decisions are made.

As Anthony Mayne says, “Democracy is precious”. Walls and fortresses are not great facilitators of democracy.

The MAYNETeam is committed to restoring democracy and involving the community in decision-making.

A community first Council culture is essential for effective community engagement.

It is easy to say that we need a new community engagement process. But a process alone will not solve the problem of more active involvement of the community. Involving the community means listening and hearing and acting. Designing and implementing a new community engagement process must include changing the culture of the administration that manages that process.

For the last several years the top management in the administration has created and fostered a culture that is afraid of exposing its thinking, afraid of dealing with feedback and of avoiding answering questions. Below the levels of the top management are about 500 staff (see note [1]) who take their direction from the top. These 500 or so staff are committed and capable and want to provide a service to the community. But they take direction from the top and that top has not validated community centric engagement. We need to change this culture – which has not developed because of the staff but because of its leadership – to a culture that puts the community first. More than this, the new culture will put people and businesses first. As a shorthand we will describe the new culture as Community First (see note [2]).

There is evidence for a faulty culture. Every 6 months the General Manager publishes a Six Monthly Performance Update. The last one was for July – December 2020 so we are due another one. This last update tells us of the status of a large number of actions, I counted 172. These actions are rated as “on track’, on hold”, or “needs attention”. Of the 172, 171 are “on track” and 1 is “on hold”. Anyone who has run a complicated business, like a local Council, knows that this is not so. This document tells us that there is a requirement – whether or not it is explicit – that the senior management wants only good news. That is not a great culture: it puts enormous pressure on otherwise capable and committed staff.

A community engagement process needs to take account of demography and geography. It needs to take account of differing needs and expectations. It needs to deal with ambiguity – people’s wants and needs sometimes conflict. It also needs to deal with aligning community expectations with practicality and affordability. A community engagement process should not replace the democratic process – after all we elect the Council to represent us – but it should inform that process. Elections take place every 4 years. In today’s world, 4 years is almost a lifetime. Things change. The 5 year plan is a thing of the past because things change fast.

But we need to start somewhere with improving community engagement. The MAYNE Team will start with two initiatives that must run in parallel:

  1.  A community engagement program: we will start with a series of focus groups, facilitated by external advisers. We expect that these focus groups will reflect both place (say, Batemans Bay, Moruya and Narooma) and demographics (perhaps age). The external advisers will have skills and experience in running focus groups and will advise us, within a reasonable and affordable budget, what groups we need to run where. The objective is to learn how the community wish to be consulted and engaged. We will then act on those recommendations.

  2. A Community First culture program: most experience of change in organisations tells us two main things:

  • that all change is hard even when you are changing to something better. There is something reassuring about familiarity

  • that lasting change works best from the bottom up. Telling people to change is rarely effective. 

The Community First program must be driven from the bottom up – like community engagement, staff engagement is important for good decision-making. We will need help to facilitate this but not to do it. We must do the change. A newly elected Council must change its behaviours and it must set clear expectations of the behaviours of its senior staff. That senior staff must listen to, and take into account, the views and expectations of its direct reports, and so on down the line. Change happens upwards and downwards but if it does not happen upwards then it will be fragile if it happens at all.

Will this be easy? Of course not. Culture change is hard. Many in the community don’t want to be involved but are still vocal when matters affect them. That is as should be. We need to cater for and cope with that. Community First means embracing community engagement so that the decisions that are made are just better decisions.

 

Notes:

[1]       On 30 June 2020 Council employed 462 people in permanent roles and 51 people in temporary roles (source: 2019/20 Annual Report, p58).

[2]       In 2017 Council published a Community Engagement Framework with “a view to [building] a culture of effective engagement across the organisation.” This plan (which is currently being updated) was accompanied by a set of key performance indicators. We can find scant – if any – evidence of any report of progress against the Community Engagement Framework which, we note, is a good document.

References:

ESC Performance reporting page

Six Monthly Performance Update - December 2020 – the last one listed

4 November 2021