Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
Saturday, 3 September 2011
Beyond the (local) ballot box
Beyond the (local) ballot box
In this essay I bring together my thoughts about the deficit in Australia’s representative democracy, with opportunities that the local level provides for participation, engagement … and active citizenship. This is placed within the context of community wellbeing – which is “built from a foundation of participatory local democracy.”
The essay, which builds upon themes I introduced in the On-Line Opinion piece included earlier in this blog, proposes new ways of doing things at the local level. Deliberative democracy can strengthen (not replace) representative democracy and has much to offer. Putting this into practice will require persistence and support and this must come chiefly from citizens themselves.
Ignorance, apathy, disillusionment and hostility towards Governments are widespread throughout Australia, and much of the western democratic world. This creeping malaise, eating away at society, is strong at the Local Government level. And while we all know Local Government is the level closest to the people there is little comfort to be had here, little safety in an assumption that local decision makers will have the public interest at heart. Rather, this is more a sign of how remote other levels of Government are.
Few people, anywhere in Australia, would be able to name their elected Councillors – the people they vote for – let alone make a judgement about their ability to manage a job far more complex and demanding than is commonly understood. The relatively higher level of public apathy towards Local Government, combined with a lower level of scrutiny, leads to a greater likelihood of opportunistic behaviour among elected Councillors. Combined with the lack of collaborative skills and attitudes among Councillors, a consequence is a higher risk of bad decision making.
So as this disconnect, found widely throughout the community, supports governance and decision making that may emphasise personal ambitions over the public interest, community interest and belief is further undermined. This has been well demonstrated many times in the actual and perceived abuse of process in local politics and in community responses. The condition becomes self-sustaining, a non-virtuous cycle.
Local Government touches the lives of almost every citizen in some way on a daily basis – the disconnect affects quality of life, community harmony, economic development and environmental sustainability. The term disengaged apoliticals describes the fast growing class of voter who have little interest or knowledge of political debates. Left to chance, or political leadership, the situation seems likely to get worse. For very many people voting is an empty ritual.
So we celebrate democracy, vote every few years
Then we turn our gaze, live in a haze
And get what we deserve.
Yet, despite this antipathy for Council, there is something about the local in Local Government that often arouses passions and protective interests. People get excited at the prospects of Council amalgamations, or sackings. And they may hate the bastards they elected, “but at least they’re our bastards,” even if they are largely unknown. After decades of rationalisation and the withdrawal of services from local communities most people still know where the Council chambers are. John Howard played on this before the 2007 federal election when he took the extraordinary step of proposing to legislate to stop the Queensland State Government from going ahead with Council amalgamations. Even though Local Government is a state responsibility, Howard clearly thought there would be some voter appeal in this tactic.
Throughout Australia, Local Government went through reforms in the 1990s with a major focus on corporate governance– management improvements, efficiencies in service delivery and cost saving. Opportunities for supporting community development and wellbeing were overlooked. Research for the Local Government Community Services Association of Australia notes that community wellbeing is “built from a foundation of participatory local democracy – good governance and active citizenship – together with a commitment to promoting social justice and the growth of local social capital.”
An active citizen “is someone who not only believes in the concept of a democratic society but who is willing and able to translate that belief into action,” according to an Australian Government report on citizenship education. This is sometimes called the head, hands and heart approach to education. The head holds the knowledge as to how society works, the hands provide the practical skills, the means to act, and the heart nourishes the belief that participating is the right thing to do. While active citizenship is a natural condition for some people, the majority need support and encouragement.
Planning decisions are the entry point for many people to come into contact with their Council and here there is often a good deal of friction. Councils routinely undertake community consultation in planning matters, whether a new policy or over an individual development proposal. Often this is nothing more than smoke and mirrors, the DAD approach – a decision is made, it is announced and then defended.
Whether in planning decisions or the wider range of Local Government functions, people’s willingness and ability to participate – as active citizens – are key concerns. Jim Ife, a noted community development writer and academic, points out that participation in civil society does not sit easily within the “dominant individualist, consumer basis of society, and contradicts the socialisation of many people.”
Ife has identified three problems in participation. The first is tokenism, where people’s participation can’t make any difference, as seen in the DAD approach to consultation. Co-optation, the second of Ife’s problems, manifests itself as Stockholm syndrome. This is where newly elected Councillors lose touch with those who elected them, or citizens join committees to review something they oppose, and then get swept along with the big boys’ club. The third problem lies in finding the balance between rights (to services and support) and responsibilities (to contribute to the community). Embedding a responsibility to contribute to the community is most problematic as it can not be forced.
Local Government has a core function in community development and its structures should provide accessible pathways for citizen participation with a practical problem-solving focus on community issues. While these pathways are far from commonplace they have formed a small part of the Local Government landscape in Australia. Ted Mack was Mayor of North Sydney City Council between 1980-88 before extended periods as a state and then federal MP. Mack says that maintenance of the ‘we were elected to make decisions’ strain of representative democracy “leads to increasing frustration, aggression and ultimately violence.” This shows up “more at the Local Government level, which is closer to the people and more accessible.” Mack successfully introduced a form of participatory democracy while Mayor of North Sydney.
This went through three stages: firstly the development of open Government where, apart from legal advice, all information was publicly available; secondly, the creation of systems to enable citizen participation; thirdly, a process for citizens to make decisions, with Council’s role reduced to that of facilitator and administrator. While many initially claimed the sky would fall in because of these reforms they were widely supported, although apathy later rose, bred, paradoxically, by high levels of contentment. As Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States said: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
Hugh Mackay, the respected psychologist and social researcher, has recently noted the pre-eminent desire of Australian people is to be taken seriously. To be acknowledged, recognised, appreciated, valued and remembered, Mackay says, is the sovereign desire sitting atop a list that includes the desires for control, for love and for something to believe in. So there is an opportunity here. The desire to be taken seriously can be met, while tackling the apathy and ignorance found at the Local Government level by building on the protective instincts found at the local level.
In recent years Councils around Australia have put in place a range of community engagement strategies and participatory approaches. In practice many of these go little beyond providing information, or supporting the DAD approach. And even the best policy needs a supportive attitude. However citizens’ panels, reference groups and open community forums before Council meetings are becoming more common. These ongoing participatory approaches can support informed discussion and decision making on complex issues, particularly where disagreement exists, or where there are clear choices to be made, such as at elections. The fact that Councils are adopting community engagement, at least at some level, provides an opportunity for an educated community to insist upon quality engagement, a valid and early seat at the decision making table.
Imagine this scenario …
Delegated groups of citizens from a local Council have met several times over several months to make recommendations for the allocation of part of the Council’s annual budget. They have read background material, discussed issues and options with Council financial staff and elected Councillors, and participated in a series of local meetings held in different places at different times. In the local meetings, where much larger numbers of citizens have participated, spending priorities are identified and local people elected to join the delegates in turning the priorities into specific project proposals. These are in areas such as roads, parking and transport, recreation, culture and library services, as well as park and reserve development and maintenance. Council staff provide technical assistance and citizens then vote on the various proposals. Note that these people are called citizens – not ratepayers, customers or residents. The proposals they adopt are remarkably free of parochial self-interest in benefits to their area – the common good has trumped personal vested interest.
This is the first year Council has undertaken this exercise. Council has agreed to consider and fully explain how it deals with these proposals. On announcing this initiative the Mayor, with support of the majority of elected Councillors, said Council planned to conduct the exercise for two years. Then, after a detailed evaluation, Council would decide whether to move to a fuller participatory budgeting program. Beyond making recommendations, this is where the citizens of the city would have the authority to develop part of the budget for Council not just to consider, but actually implement.
Participatory budgeting, a political commitment between Government and civil society, has been operating in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre since 1989. More than 1,200 organisations around the world have used the process, most of them in Latin America and Europe. The United Nations and the World Bank have endorsed participatory budgeting as a model for democratic Government, generating social capital, leading to better decisions and increasing transparency and accountability.
And this scenario …
Every year a local Council holds public meetings to present its proposed budget to residents and ratepayers. As a requirement placed on Council by the State Government this is seen as a ‘tick the box’ exercise. Because of the geographic size of the Council area, which has a population of close to 100,000 people, three separate meetings are held in different parts of the city. The Mayor opens the meeting, welcoming people and explaining the meeting format. This takes about five minutes and then the General Manager/ Chief Executive Officer provides an overview of around 10 minutes. Detailed PowerPoint presentations follow, each lasting 10 to 15 minutes, from each of the Council’s Group Directors.
Only then, after an hour of presentations, are questions invited from the floor. Not surprisingly people in the audience are, by this stage, frustrated and bored. Many questions are vague or poorly thought through. The answers to some questions have been included in the presentations but this has been lost in the detail. People fail to follow questions and link them to the presentation. Little wonder that public attendance at these meetings is often small. One of these meetings in 2010 for example, attended by the five senior staff as well as the Mayor, attracted a public audience of three. Another drew a crowd of around 30 who had little interest in the budget but saw an opportunity to voice their opposition to the development of a skate park in their area. An adult’s attention span is widely recognised as being limited to about 20 minutes, but even this depends on the way information is presented. Having PowerPoint slides read to them in a monotone voice cuts into the 20 minutes.
Which leads to the conclusion that the format of these meetings is aimed at the convenience and comfort of the presenters, not to audience enlightenment. The need for absolute control of proceedings prevents this Council from inviting questions after each individual presentation. Such a simple step would be of considerable assistance to the audience.
In the first scenario we see an empowered group of citizens with a large range of choices at their disposal, having real responsibility. In the second we see disempowered (or absent) residents faced with little choice, going through the motions. Levels of trust, cooperation, satisfaction, innovation and resilience are high in the first group, low in the second. The first group are in asset mode, they take what could be called a shed building approach to life. When faced with a problem they say, “What can we do?” The second group are in deficit mode. When faced with a problem they ask, “Who is going to fix it?” Their approach to life can be likened to a vending machine. They pay their rates to Council, they want their service in return. Just like a packet of chips from a vending machine.
In the early 20th century Australia was seen around the world as a leader in democracy. The secret ballot was an Australian initiative and this was one of the first countries to give women the right to vote and stand for parliament. The removal of property ownership as a condition for Members of Parliament, payment for MPs and Saturday voting allowed working people to vote and stand for election. Australia became a nation when six states voted themselves into a Commonwealth without a war. Add to these achievements a minimum wage, unemployment benefits and a universal pension and it becomes clear why Australia was regarded as an egalitarian social laboratory.
Democracy is strongest when it best reflects the will of the people. That will is best determined through peoples’ participation in collective decision making and for this to occur opportunities must be made available. Deliberative democracy, a proactive process whereby citizens engage in the policy decision making process at the earliest stages, can provide the opportunities. In deliberation people take note of and question expert opinion. They share their personal views with the aim of finding common ground, while recognising differences. Decision making follows reasoned and respectful discussion. Consensus does not become an obsession.
Deliberative democracy is more about enabling citizens to participate in joint problem solving than merely inviting them to have a say. During deliberation, self-interest is put aside as the consequences of different options are explored. Deliberation means careful consideration before decision. This is the antithesis of most people’s experiences of making choices in the political arena. Here, knee-jerk reactions to a Government decision or intention, often with only superficial knowledge, are the norm.
Participatory budgeting, deliberative polls and 21st century town meetings are deliberative processes engaging large numbers of people. Participatory budgeting, using a mix of traditional face-to-face meetings and on-line methods, has been used by a small but growing number of Councils in Australia. This includes Port Macquarie-Hastings Council in NSW, which was sacked in 2008 after a failure to engage the community and a massive blow-out in costs for a cultural and entertainment centre.
A number of national deliberative polls have been held in Australia. The first took place in 1999 on the question of a republic replacing the status quo, the monarchy. This has been followed by deliberative polls on Aboriginal reconciliation and relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. Regionally based deliberative polls have been held both in the ACT on the question of a Bill of Rights and in South Australia on constitutional reform. Electronic voting, opinion boards and online discussion forums are some of the methods used in 21st century town meetings. A citizen’s parliament, using 21st century town meeting methods, was held in Canberra in 2009. The Western Australian Government used this method in a major planning project called Dialogue with the City in 2003. This included a survey of 8,000 residents followed by a town meeting with 1 100 participants.
Deliberative democracy methods engaging smaller numbers of people include citizens’ panels, juries and consensus conference. Citizens’ juries, with between 12-24 participants, have been used in the United States since the late 1970s. Many have been held in Australia in recent years on issues such as health services, national park management and climate change. In 2003 a youth citizens’ jury was held in Parramatta, making recommendations on matters of concern to youth. In 2007 a citizens’ jury in Aireys Inlet in Victoria focused on the sealing of unpaved local roads and drainage issues.
Two leading Australian practitioners of deliberative democracy, Lyn Carson and Janette Hartz-Karp, have outlined three criteria for fully democratic deliberative processes. Firstly, the process should have the ability to influence decision making. Secondly, the process should be representative of the population and inclusive of diverse viewpoints and values with equal opportunity for all to participate. Thirdly, the process should provide opportunities for deliberation, with access to information, respect, time and space for understanding issues and movement towards consensus.
Random selection matches gender, age, education and other relevant census statistics to produce a microcosm of the population, known as a mini-public. This will ensure that in a local Council citizens’ jury of 12-24 people there are not, for example, two accountants from the same suburb. Or that a larger forum is not dominated by retired people who may have more time on their hands. The full range of views need to be presented for deliberation. Vested interests must be included. Paul Ginsborg, a political activist and professor at an Italian university, has noted that deliberation enhances the legitimacy of decisions because a range of people have participated in the decision, not a single or select few decision makers. While some may not agree with the final decision, they recognise the legitimacy of the decision making process.
Deliberative processes require time and commitment with many needing two or three days of face-to-face meetings, sometimes over lengthy periods. A citizens’ assembly runs over the best part of a year. Before the three day Australian Citizens’ Parliament in Canberra in February 2009, where 150 randomly selected citizens formed a mini-public, much larger numbers of people met in regional meetings and on-line over several months of preparation. If you didn’t hear of the Citizens’ Parliament that’s probably due, at least in part, to the event coinciding with the Victorian bushfires.
The Rudd Government 2020 Summit held in 2008 gave deliberative forums a bad name, because virtually all the recommendations were ignored. Likewise, the citizens’ assembly on climate change proposed by Julia Gillard early in the 2010 election campaign attracted criticism from many who dismissed it as a reason to delay action. Others had more considered responses. Peter Shergold, formerly Australia’s top public servant as Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, saw it as the “right solution in the wrong context.”
Citizen engagement and deliberative democracy can be seen as signs of political maturity and a committed form of community leadership that recognises the importance of providing opportunities for citizens to participate beyond the ballot box. Those who prefer the certainty of their own decision making powers and fear a loss of control will oppose deliberative approaches, sometimes claiming these are an abrogation of the responsibility of elected representatives. The criticism is that the deliberative approach is nothing more than an idealistic talkfest, the participants are being conned and the process is biased. In extreme cases key stakeholders might withdraw, undermining the process. This happened with industry representatives in a NSW citizens’ jury on container deposit legislation in 2001.
There is ample evidence of high levels of trust and satisfaction with deliberative processes and outcomes. In 2004 British Colombia held a citizens’ assembly on electoral reform. The recommendations from this went quickly to a referendum, where it was noted that people who voted in favour of the recommendations did so because they trusted the people who had formed those recommendations. It is most unlikely they would have had the same level of trust in recommendations made by politicians. A final report by a university researcher into the Aireys Inlet citizens’ jury noted, “it cannot be overstated how effective the citizens’ jury process was in shifting preferences towards what was seen as the common good.” Participants in different deliberative forums consistently report their personal satisfaction, developing skills and confidences they hadn’t known they possessed. Active citizenship gets a boost.
Representative democracy, the Australian model, is based on formal voting and the secrecy of the ballot box, which Ginsborg says cannot be replaced by deliberative democracy. However deliberative democracy can provide a middle path, a vital connection between participation of the relatively few and representation of the many. In practice elected representatives are rarely a typical or “average citizen,” but deliberative processes can ensure they are more in touch with the considered views of “average citizens.”
Some claim deliberation has an inherent weakness in its idealism, but this is also one of its great strengths. Many people are willing, keen in fact, to participate, to deliberate, when they think it matters. Lyn Carson, former local Councillor, academic and deliberative democracy practitioner, says that cynicism and distrust do not equal apathy. Participation, she says, is like an unused muscle, it atrophies, and so with adequate exercise it can be strengthened.
Given the right forum citizens can and do take the trouble to learn, and to struggle with complex issues, to understand and make informed decisions among competing choices. Learning like this goes way beyond uncritical acceptance, or rejection, of sponsored community education programs, which do little more than promote a preferred position and may, more aptly, be called propaganda. This is liberating. It changes people. They discover they like being active citizens more often than occasional visits to the ballot box. As Hugh Mackay noted, being taken seriously is the number one desire of Australian people. Ancient wisdom from Confucius, 450 BC, is still relevant today: Tell me I forget, Show me I remember, Involve me I understand.
Increasing participation through deliberative processes provides the greatest opportunities for individual development and relationship building. Following from this will be re-engagement and a strengthening of citizenship. So, back to the laboratory for experimentation with deliberative democracy at the Local Government level – the level closest to the people – where apathy and ignorance are high, but protective instincts provide opportunities for positive change. Here, with the nearness of problems to be solved, deliberative democracy can be most responsive, and it’s probably cheapest too. Local Government can be an important building block of Australian democracy but, given the focus on corporate governance at the expense of community governance, it could readily be seen that local Councils are the problem, not the solution. The community, which has allowed itself to be seduced into the easy way of opting out, through its cynicism and distrust, must take some responsibility for what can be seen as a democratic deficit.
Re-define local democracy to truly serve the people, strengthen local political processes and build stronger and more resilient communities along the way. This calls for a social movement, a civic engagement campaign, led by local communities working with Local Government on the journey – and it will be a journey, rather than a destination. Like environmental sustainability and Aboriginal reconciliation we should never feel we are quite there. The campaign won’t be without its risks, mistakes will be made, but the alternative is quite unpalatable and ever more risky. Australia may again be a leader of democracy, a role model for the world.
Deliberative democracy has generally been top down: those with the power invite citizens in. From the bottom up, citizens must learn to be bold, to demand an invitation. It’s up to concerned citizens, individual activists, social movements and interest groups to present a rational and logical case for deliberative and participatory opportunities in the early stages of a decision making process. These opportunities must be open to all, not just members and supporters of organised groups. Citizens need to be prepared to argue the case against those in positions of power who don’t see the need, the benefit, or are stuck in a state of anxiety over the new and uncertain. “It should be borne in mind,” Machiavelli told us, “that there is nothing more difficult, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes.” Rational and logical arguments don’t always carry the day.
Part of being bold is to take the conversation about the need for increased participation and deliberation throughout the community, the whole community. Start at the kitchen table, the backyard fence, the social networks and workplaces, civil society. Throughout Australia, and the world, citizen groups have often mounted informed, well planned and well supported campaigns against major developments that they perceive to threaten their common interest. Some of these have been successful, some not, but the thing they have in common is they are invariably a reaction to a threat. There is little opportunity for pro-activity and groups who do not have an existing vigorous support base are behind the eight ball from the start.
Bent Flyvberg, a Danish professor of town planning conducted a long-term study of planning and its associated conflicts in a Danish city. One of his many conclusions is that “forms of participation that are practical, committed and ready for conflict provide a superior paradigm of democratic virtue.” Conflict, in this context, doesn’t necessarily mean manning the barricades. It can mean a dogged persistence, a refusal to take no for an answer, which may include the barricades. We can take inspiration from the words of Henry Thoreau, respected American philosopher, naturalist and author, who towards the end of his life said: “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour.
Most traditional community engagement draws in those who are interested, capable, the ‘usual suspects.’ Public meetings attract the ‘incensed and the articulate.’ There is, however, little point, little progress to be made if engagement stops here. Continual attempts are needed to engage the alienated, the marginalised. Jim Ife outlined some disincentives to participation but also points to some good old fashioned principles of community development that will support participation. The issue or the activity must be important and people must feel they can make a difference. Different forms of participation must be acknowledged, including art and storytelling. Formal meetings and committees don’t suit everyone. People must be enabled and supported to participate through such things as childcare, appropriate venues and timing. And the structures and processes used must not be alienating, as in the second scenario presented earlier in this essay.
The challenge then is to engage citizens in public decision making and problem solving. Learning from the successes and the failures, building on the strengths, overcoming the weaknesses and embracing the possibilities, including the discomfort. “The virtue of uncertainty is not a comfortable idea,” Canadian writer John Ralston Saul said, “but then a citizen-based democracy is built upon participation, which is the very expression of permanent discomfort.” Local people, local issues. Start with the little but important things and let people rise to the challenge. Sealing of unpaved roads, parking problems and solutions in congested tourist towns, waste management in a time of increased costs and shortage of landfill sites, swimming pool management; these are the bread and butter concerns of Local Government and of local communities.
Certainly there will be costs but there will be a vast reduction in Council staff time spent on dealing with complaints. There may well be a reduction in legal action Council’s are involved in. Councils might pool resources and share costs. Deliberative habits, once learned, can be applied more broadly, not just held for full deliberative democracy processes. We might see a brake on the dysfunction and political grandstanding that engulfs some Councils.
Other benefits could be widespread and enormous. Think
about a more cohesive society operating in asset mode with greater capacity to innovate and creatively solve problems. Imagine leadership spread throughout the community rather than concentrated at the pointy end of a broad and bored base. Young people with greater certainty and ability to contribute their talents.
The future of deliberative democracy and engaged local communities depends on an interdependent relationship between elected representatives acting as champions with courage and conviction, empowered and responsive Local Government managers and, most importantly, active and committed citizens – who don’t take no for an answer. Victor Hugo said nothing is more powerful than an idea
whose time has come. The time may be closer than we think, the tipping point may be within sight.