Moderator. David Ackroyd is Acting Manager of Sutherland Shire Council’s Strategic Planning Unit. He is a strong advocate for increasing the role of residents in decision-making and was responsible for developing Council’s Community Consultation Policy. He has titled his talk, "Shaping a local government area".

David Ackroyd

Sutherland Shire Council is about to embark on another substantial community consultation process for its Blueprint for Action, which Tracie, our Mayor, spoke about earlier this morning. That document will be built around the pillars of Council’s guide, Our Shire Our Future. The outcomes of the consultation on the Blueprint for Action will inform the development of a new LEP for the Shire. In today’s talk, what I would like to do is look at some of the techniques used in consultation. What makes good and bad consultation and how Council used such a process in developing Our Shire Our Future. In the conclusion, I'd like to raise a few issues on some of the social issues related to localities, communities, sustainability and consultation.

Community consultation, for many people, is seen as a magic wand. It is a critical principle in private and public sector business. It's about producing satisfaction and outcomes for all parties that are involved in consultation processes and it's about seeking agreement between people with diverse views. Where disagreement is evident, consultation is all about working through those issues on a constructive basis. Good consultation is about the best option for all and not just simply a compromise. It's good business. It demonstrates a customer orientation; a people-resident orientation.

Increasingly councils are moving to measures of customer satisfaction. We're about to embark on a survey of about 600 people, with Council looking at measurements of satisfaction with Council services. Good business highlights areas of concern and it gives us the opportunity to improve and I guess part of the "anti-business" concept that was talked about earlier shows at least we're out there and we're prepared to ask the questions and listen, which puts us into the position where we're actually able to improve services. It's about good government – residents have a right to information to express their views on issues that impact on them and set priorities and budgets.

By the same token, for some people community consultation is seen as a poisoned chalice. It is perceived to reduce innovation and risk and it sometimes reduces everybody to a lowest common denominator. One of the constant constraints that we're under, certainly in our Planning Services, is the time that's taken to approve development applications. Again, consultation is a time-consuming process. It's not something that can be achieved very quickly; it involves time and resources and that's an issue for us within council. Regardless, the push from the community across the world is for more consultation. In government circles in particular, it is about more transparency, it's about more accountability, and it's about less trust in politicians. Perhaps it's the natural evolution of good government, it's about good business and good management. Consultation is really the sign of a mature organisation – one that is thoughtful, prepared to listen and actually take some action.

What is good consultation? From a council perspective, it's about commitment of resources. There's no point in promoting the virtues of consultation if we're not prepared to invest time and resources in it. Consultation is often the subject of highly charged political and social issues, and in this climate you need well-trained, qualified and experienced staff to undertake the consultations. One technique in terms of undertaking the consultation process in not sufficient; one technique used to the exclusion of others can be and often is manipulated. In America, for example, there is a push towards referenda where all citizens get the chance to vote. But In some instances what is happening is that the lobby groups actually employ signature-seekers to get the signatures for the petition that gets a referendum before electors. There is no compulsion to vote necessarily, but they can be captured by small interest groups. North Sydney conducts community polls in tandem with its elections and of the questions asked in 1999, when I was looking at the website, the website indicates that not one result has been actioned. If we are asking questions, we need to have a commitment to implement what residents say, or have a very good reason for not doing so. We need to be prepared to not like the answer. To not do so is probably worse than not asking the question in the first place.

From a council perspective, perhaps an essential requirement of the job specification in council's future job descriptions is all about employing people with big ears. If not, at least we should be putting in skills in community consultation. Perhaps job descriptions should also include reference to skills in dispute resolution and conflict management. That goes across all council divisions. There is not a division within council that does not have an interaction with the community, and so, for engineers, planners and property, there is a need for all of us all to engage in consultation processes. We all need better skills in communicating and also in providing feedback on how and why decisions are made. One of the biggest complaints that we get in council is that we don't actually provide feedback. Even when decisions do not go your way, at least if you get feedback as to why, then perhaps you might be more prepared to accept the outcome.

What is good consultation? From a community perspective it is small meetings built around people with common interests , or of people who feel threatened, or people who see opportunities. But all too often they do not necessarily include minority groups, and going back to who we should involve – it's not just one consultation process. For example, it's not just the combined precinct association, it's not just one organisation that we need to consult with, but it's a range of organisations. The more organised groups there are, the easier it is for council to interact with them – communication channels are well oiled.

Networking between community groups not only enables small groups to gain alternative perspectives on issues, but can also develop even greater leverage in council in its decision-making processes. A united voice will undoubtedly attract greater attention than numerous differing perspectives. The better understanding you have of the decision-making process, the more likely you are to be able to understand when the best opportunities will arise for you to actually change decision-making processes and voice your opinions.

Always remember that council staff do themselves work under constraints. Council's budgets are not infinite and we are a diverse organisation with, in some instances, good reasons for diverse pressure between divisions within council. Our property division is employed to generate income for council and it has a brief to do that. Equally, we have other divisions which are about economic and environmental concerns, where the money-making perspective is not as strong. We need to bring those diverse views together and get a common purpose.

At the end of the day, everybody needs to take off the armour that they're wearing and we all need to be able to talk together. We would hope that we would all come to consultations without the armour that's stashed in the corner. Consultation is about being open, about taking risks and there will be instances when things happen which are not foreseen. It is often these instances that can lead to the most creative solutions to the issues. With the armour on, we'll probably never experience the pleasure of experiencing true innovation.

Within council, what are the constraints to good consultation? Positive working relationships with community-backed groups are not created overnight, they take time and a lot of work. One bad experience with one division within council can undo the work of years that has been achieved by other divisions. So we need the training, the skills and we need some delegation to be able to make decisions. When we come out to see you and talk with the community, we need to be able to actually take those ideas back, fairly confident that we are able to pursue the ideas that have been put forward. A bureaucratic approach and a lack of flexibility, unclear or conflicting consultation objectives, no resources and difficulty in obtaining representative samples – these are all issues which constrain council in undertaking consultation. Both sides need to approach each other with open minds, not wearing the armour, and actually be prepared to talk and listen.

Constraints from a community perspective should not be taken as excuses for council not to consult, but inexperience in consultation practice by local community organisations does make it more difficult for council to consult effectively. Lack of understanding of the politics, of the technical areas around which we're debating, and of knowledge about the issues, all limit our abilities to enter into constructive communication. Diverse conflicting opinion within the community makes it very difficult for the community to put a united voice to council.

If we can overcome each one of these constraints and build on the positives of consultation, then perhaps the type of consultation programs that we'll be attending in the future are like the following: the consultation practice we undertook with the Shape the Shire process, undertaken prior to me coming to the position of Strategic Planning Manager, gives a good example of the types of work we were involved in at that time…

Over 17,000 people participated in the process. In telephone surveys, a better than 50% response rate was achieved, which many marketing organisations would be more than happy to get. Over 600 customers participated in workshops. Residents, or customers, actually apologised for the inability to attend some of the sessions. We letterbox-surveyed 80,000 households and businesses and we received over 11,500 responses – one in seven. Experts and key decision-makers were part and parcel of the workshops we undertook. There was no financial payment to the participants within the consultation process. In terms of the number of households within the Shire, there were 73,000 households in our population of 208,000 people, with 9,000 businesses in the area. The Shape the Shire process, is one of developing a prioritised, long-term, strategic plan for the Shire. It's built around 5 pillars: nurturing our clean environment, improving our suburbs, maintaining the prosperous local economy, building safe, healthy and active lifestyles, and increasing the number of citizens involved in Shire life.

The underlying approach was one of public judgement. It was an education approach that we took; we didn't simply go out and ask "do you want this" without providing any information on what the background or what the mandates were that we were under. Discussion papers were circulated prior to workshops, and background research information and discussion papers were published. A seminar series is still going on and we engaged government departments in the consultation process. Somewhere, I think, we also need to improve in developing those partnerships with government departments, so that people like DUAP can actually tap into our community consultation processes, rather than come in at the last minute and tell us what we should be doing. Group sizes varied between 8 and 80. Mail-outs, face-to-face in-depth interviews, repeated trialling and piloting, evaluation and feedback at each stage of the consultation process were promoted. We provided a central point for all information coming back into council. We promoted the issues through council newsletters, through notices in libraries, council buildings, public places and held evaluations at each stage.

The outcome is an overwhelming acceptance of the strategies contained in the document. It's been seen as a benchmark in consultation practices and referred to in academic circles and academic literature. Moving on from here, the Guide is now widely known and has been used as a foundation document for formulating the Blueprint for Action, which is our next big challenge in the consultation process.

Finally I'm going to talk briefly about some of the social issues which surround development. Social impacts are less tangible, more difficult to measure – they're ideal for a consultation type approach. The social boundaries of local communities can be quite different to environmental boundaries or places. What is a local community? Is it a geographical feature? A water catchment? A natural boundary? Built environment? Postcode?

Section 94 funds from developers have often been used to build community facilities. In some instances, on different sides of a railway line, where there was no nexus, no unifying factor and some councils have been burnt, simply because they didn't realise that the place where they were building, even though it was just a few meters away from where funds were levied, had no actual relationship in terms of place or community.

Our local community is often made up of families. That's our friends, our neighbours, people who look the same, people of the same religion, people gathered at churches, people of the same race…

So in social terms, a local community is about belonging, but it's not just about places. It's also about people, races, sex and religion. People come together for various reasons, often when there are common interests, opportunities, or when there are threats. The HIV Aids epidemic was a good example of that, where small groups of people actually came together, living in vastly different areas, but coming together to fight in a common cause. Local communities demonstrate that we care. Oyster Bay, Miranda, Cronulla, Menai – they're all people who are sitting here today. Demonstrating we care is crucial. Fixing broken windows quickly, removing graffiti quickly, quick response by police – all are key issues for our local communities. We also need to think about global issues in the consultation process and not exclude small groups. Putting group homes for people with disabilities into our communities at a local level is very difficult. People often do not want to see people with disabilities living next door to them. Yet putting those sorts of facilities in place is part of the broader common good which we do need to consider when we actually go out and talk to people. We are not one homogeneous community. Really what community consultation is all about is actually talking. It's about providing feedback. It's about us providing you with information and it's about working together. So long as we both do that together in a friendly, mutual, respectful way, we'll actually all grow.