Top tips on planning your public participation processes
Getting the design of your public participation processes right is vitally important. In this article you’ll tap into the expertise of one of Australia’s most experienced local government practitioners, Leanne Hartill.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to interview Leanne. She is the former Chair of the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) Australasia Board and was the Deputy Presiding Member of the IAP2 Federation Board. Leanne is currently Manager Neighbourhood Development at the City of Melville, which was the winner of the prestigious IAP2 Australasian Organisation of the Year 2012.
What’s the role of IAP2 in encouraging and promoting sound public participation processes?
IAP2 focuses on advancing the practice of community engagement. It has over 2000 members across Australia and New Zealand and offers accredited training as well as networking and professional development opportunities. It also advocates to ensure that sound community engagement processes become a way of doing business throughout government and corporate cultures.
What does effective public participation ‘look like’ to you?
Firstly, it must be open and transparent. Engagement is not about getting people to agree with you. It needs to be a well-planned process where there is still a decision to be made. Participants in the process need to be clear on who is making the decision and what influence they’ll can have on the decision by committing their time to the process.
More and more, we’re seeing that communities expect and demand sound engagement processes. If an engagement process is poorly planned or under-estimates the importance of the issue to the wider community, be prepared for backlash!
Communities are very well organised and savvy at developing web and social-media based campaigns to alert others and rally support.
Effective public participation also incorporates a feedback loop. It’s both important and respectful to communicate the results of any engagement process with the people who contributed their time towards it. They can then see how they’ve influenced the decision and it provides an opportunity to build relationships for the future.
What are some practical examples that you’ve seen?
The City of Melbourne and the City of Greater Geraldton-Greenough received IAP2 Core Values Awards for actively engaging rate payers to help determine how their budget should be spent. A truly diverse range of people were given decision-making responsibilities, which also involved negotiating trade-offs.
What are some of the risks to be aware of?
My ‘number one’ is, don’t make promises that you can’t keep! You need to ensure there’s congruency in your engagement process and that starts with your design phase.
Make sure that you have support and commitment within your organisation to the engagement process at all levels. So before you even think about engaging external stakeholders, get your own house in order first. Be clear and gain agreement on the decisions that you can and cannot engage on. Get approvals in place and document your engagement process. Define procedures and accountabilities throughout.
Above all, be clear on who the final decision maker is. I’ve seen examples in the past of local government undertaking engagement processes regarding planning issues that they actually had no control over. The decision maker was instead a state-level planning department or commission. This just leaves people confused about where their input is going and what influence it will have.
The other big risk that needs to be considered is in communication. Good community engagement isn’t just about asking people for comment. There are higher expectations from the broader community now. Effective engagement seeks to find out how people would like to be involved in the engagement process and then develops tools and processes to do this. It’s about using the same principle as any good business does – find out what your clients really want by asking them. Never assume you know what they want, it’s a recipe for disaster!
My heartfelt thanks goes to Leanne for featuring in this interview and providing such valuable insights for you to apply.
If you’d like a hand in planning your next public participation process, be sure to get in touch.