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Using engagement to build and sustain communities

Sally Isaac, and Clare McArdle

Victorian Local Governance Association, Local Government Division


Engaging citizens in policy making is a sound investment and a core element of good governance. It allows governments to tap wider sources of information, perspectives and potential solutions, and improves the quality of the decisions reached. Equally important, it contributes to building public trust in government, raising the quality of democracy and strengthening civic capacity. (Citizens as Partners, OECD, 2001)

There are a number of key motivating factors which have led governments to move to strengthen relations with their communities. These factors include the movement away from economic rationalist approaches to governance, the increasing relevance of the local political environment, the challenge of the emerging information society and pressures for greater government transparency and accountability. Underlying these factors is a need to reengage citizens and communities with democratic processes and a desire to rebuild public trust in government institutions.

Increasingly, the local political environment is becoming important in this context, for the following reasons:

• local is where people can have meaningful impact on their political environment;

• local organisation is a way people can collectively assert their identity and needs;

• local governments can be seen a connection point for the development of community capacity building activities.

This paper will provide details of an innovative and ongoing partnership project between the Victorian Government’s Local Government Division and the Victorian Local Governance Association (VLGA) to support and develop the skills and needs of Victorian local governments in consulting and engaging effectively with their communities. Moving beyond traditional consultation paradigms, this work is firmly grounded in increasing the capacity of local governments to facilitate community building and neighbourhood renewal projects. In particular, the use of information and communications technology for ‘e-consultation’ for broader community participation is canvassed as a way forward.

It is believed that effective consultation is a fundamental component of a new drive in Victoria to further engage communities in local decision making processes. One key outcome is improved local democratic governance. Enhanced social sustainability is another that can be drawn under this discussion.


Local governments in Victoria have undergone amazing upheaval through the 1990s and into the early 2000s. Amalgamations saw the reduction in the number of Victorian Councils from 210 to 78. Accompanying this was a program of downsizing, changes in service delivery, the capping of rates revenue, the downplaying of the governance and community development roles of local government and the introduction of Compulsory Competitive Tendering.

The changes wrought through local government reform have, perhaps inadvertently created larger and, certainly in metropolitan and regional areas, more powerful local governments. These local governments can now engage in serious social, economic and environmental planning in a manner hitherto unheard of. They can influence governments and have a real impact on physical and social infrastructure.

Victorian local governments have the capacity to provide a model of quality governance that can influence the way Australians view their political institutions. They can throw out serious challenges to the way State and Federal Governments operate.

The VLGA feels that the changes have left local governments in a potentially strong position to be a major player in the reconstruction of community in Victoria.

This is the potential, however the practice is varied. Local governments are still acting at times in isolation; they can be uncertain about their mandates, Councillors do not always govern on behalf of and with their communities. Some local governments still allow themselves to be seen primarily as service deliverers and as existing in some sort of subservient relationship to the State.

Local governments can strengthen their confidence, capacities and connections through engaging their communities. A key tool to achieve this is effective community consultation and engagement.

Partnership project — consultation — what it really means and how to do it better

The VLGA has forged an important and ongoing partnership with the Local Government Division to design, develop and deliver a series of consultation seminars throughout Victoria.

Best Value Victoria is a policy that aims to enhance Councils’ capacities to deliver better services to the community. This is to be achieved through the application of six Best Value Principles to local governments’ services and the way in which they govern. The application of the principles of quality and cost standards, accessibility, responsiveness, continuous improvement, community consultation and reporting, are aimed to ensure that council services better meet the needs of the community.

In order to meet the needs of their communities, and to give effect to the community consultation principle, councils need to determine how and when they are going to consult.

The aims of the seminars were to assist Councillors, senior staff and service providers to gain an understanding and practical knowledge about community consultation in the context of Best Value Victoria. Participants considered working models and approaches to consultation which they then could apply in their own workplaces. A resource document and accompanying consultation chart were developed to support this ongoing use.

The central component of the resource guide is a set of simple principles which presuppose all good consultation practices. These are as follows:

• Focus: everyone should be clear on why consultation is being undertaken.

• Inclusiveness, accessibility and diversity: Care should be taken to ensure that all affected parties are identified.

• Provision of information: good information to those impacted by the issue and potential participants will result in a greater sense of ownership of the process and outcomes.

• Timing: The consultation must take place early enough in the decision-making process to ensure that its outcomes are able to be considered prior to the decisions being made.

• Responsiveness and feedback: Consultation should be transparent and open and the Council should respond to all issues raised.

• Evaluation: Consultation processes should be evaluated following the completion of decision-making to assess whether the goals of the consultation process have been achieved.

• Resourcing: While not strictly a principle, adequate resourcing is fundamental to good consultation.

Methods of consultation are outlined and classified as to whether they are ‘pre-consultation’ or ‘two-way or interactive’. The latter category is then divided into ‘traditional’ and ‘new and innovative’ methods which include e-consultation, simulation, charettes and large group methods.

These methods are then cross-referenced with specific issues that require consultation in order to form a consultation chart or matrix. The chart then details the extent to which each method is appropriate to each identified issue. It is envisaged that this will only be a tool and that local governments will apply as appropriate of different local environments.

The resource guide has been distributed widely across the local government sector and made available to the community membership chapter of the VLGA. It has been an important tool, particularly in introducing local government Councillors and staff to the basic consultation principles and methodologies. It seeks to demonstrate that consultation can be much more than a public meeting or that it can be a public meeting with an entirely different approach and process design.

The next phase

Improved engagement and consultation is vital if local governments are to realise their governance potential and support the development of sustainable communities. The VLGA and Local Government Division will continue to work on strategies to support Victorian local governments and embrace the opportunities that prevail post amalgamation.

A needs analysis was undertaken following the completion of the seminars to determine what extra support was required by local governments in consulting more effectively.

Attracting more diverse and representative turn-outs to consultation processes was the key response with other issues including what are the best ways to consult on vision setting and long term directions to what are the most appropriate consultation methods for different issues.

Future directions

Most of the innovative examples in engaging citizens in policy-making are to be found in [on-line] policy making are to be found at the local government level — mirroring the trend found in traditional ‘off-line’ public participation. (Citizens as Partners, OECD, 2001)

The opportunities to further engage citizens and communities through information and communications technologies and the Internet are potentially enormous. Breaking away from the widespread notion that this sort of activity translates into online voting; new debates concern the ability of new technologies to support and enhance participation and two-way democratic exchange between government and citizen. In this paradigm, the local is seen as increasingly the key connection point.

This extends beyond the provision of government services on the Internet to an assessment of how it can be utilised by the government bodies, which actually represent people in informing decision-making processes.

Basic Internet access, computer literacy and telecommunications costs in some areas are key challenges to be met in building on these opportunities.

Steven Clift editor of Democracies Online Newswire indicates that key components of this new approach would include:

• substantial investment in the information infrastructure of local governments.

• adaption of online tools into the official democratic process.

• systematic full access to legally public information including meeting schedules.

• organising government information, especially proposed laws, rules and regulations so that an average citizen is able to search and receive relevant information online.

• online participation based on power structures and decision-making processes.

• specific and personalised ‘democracy’ sections on government websites.

• development of searchable digital archives of key decision-making documents for historical purposes.

• well developed and online interactive hearings and events to complement in-person public hearings.

• just as civic buildings with public spaces and committee rooms were developed to hear from the people, virtual public spaces need to be created on the reality on online advocacy.

• promotion and support for ‘Wired Elected Officials’.

As for any community building project, in ensuring this is successful, commitment is required from diverse coalitions. Private sector, government, non-profit, education organisations need to work together to develop and apply the Internet for the public interest.

Clift also refers to the importance of the local in providing Internet based advocacy services:

I see a trend towards more and more local online advocacy along side global networking. It may be that forms of advocacy at the national level in most countries are well established and the Internet will be more or less integrated therefore making only a marginal difference. Whilst at the local and global level the Internet is providing a new relatively cheaper and effective communications infrastructure that enables new sustainable activity.

The use of the Internet to further democratic processes is limited throughout Victoria. Moreland City Council, for example has undertaken online ward meetings, youth forums and ‘Chat with the Mayor’ sessions as well as structured online question times at formal council meetings. However this is very much a new and emerging practice.

The VLGA and the Local Government Division will be working to support local governments embrace these new possibilities and work towards a more open and consultative local government sector.


Best Value Victoria: Community Consultation Seminar Resource Guide, Victorian Local Governance Association and Local Government Division, Department of Infrastructure, May 2001

Best Value Principles Framework Document, Local Government Division, Department of Infrastructure, 2000

Building Partnerships between Councils and their Communities, Stegley Foundation and Victorian Local Governance Association, September, 2000

Citizens as Partners: Information, Consultation and Public Participation in Policy-Making, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2001

Code of Good Governance, Victorian Local Governance Association and Municipal Association of Victoria, May 2000

Consultation and Government Victorian Council of Social Services 1981

Community Participation in Practice: A Practical Guide, Institute for Science and Technology Policy Murdoch University Western Australia, June 1997

Online Consultation in GOL Countries: Initiatives to foster e-democracy, Government Online International Network, 2001

The E-Democracy E-Book: Democracy is Online, Steven Clift, 2000

About the author

Sally Isaac is Policy and Development Officer at the Victorian Local Governance Association (VLGA) — a peak organisation interested in local democracy. She is responsible for social justice and community development projects for the Association. She has a particular interest in the use of the Internet as an advocacy tool.

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