This month (March 2013), the Council has set up a number of meetings to consult with residents on where we want to be and an action plan on what needs to be done in the next ten years to get us there. This is standard process, one that needs to be actioned within nine months of electing a new council.
This year they set up a number of public meetings in Batlow, Gundagai, Adelong, Brungle Hall and Talbingo. For residents in those places, that was very useful. For residents of Brindabella Valley, it was less than helpful. Despite corporate planning advice that EVERYONE had been sent a postcard advising these meetings, no one in Brindabella Valley received one. Moreover, a number of Tumut residents were also left out.
Taking some initiative, six members of the Brindabella Valley drove the 1.5-hour drive to Tumut to take place in the ‘consultation’. This consisted of a 15-minute presentation on Integrated Planning & Reporting (IPR), followed by a few slides on income and expenditure, and ending with a request to fill in the first part of the survey.
There were approximately 35 people in attendance, including 5 Councillors and a number of Council staff. Community members were able to air their concerns. There was even a debate about whether governance was the same as community engagement.
This raises some interesting issues. Governance is the responsibility of the body-politic, not the Council staff, nor the community. Governance is about ensuring the organisation has achieved what it said it would do; in other words, being accountable for its performance. It requires plans that include targets (and standards by which to judge the achievement of the standards) and reporting. Council has the IPR, few if any key performance indicators, and some very dubious ‘averages’ by which to compare itself to other councils. It is the Councillors’ job to watch over the Council staff and provide the guidance to ensure the Council stays on track. This is a far cry from what really happens. Anyone who has attended a Council meeting and then read the minutes will be aware that the minutes reflect only the decisions; nothing else is reported.
So who governs the Councillors?
There is a Code of Conduct in place which Council staff and Councillors must pledge to follow. Currently, both staff and body politic can be scrutinised by respective departments in the NSW Government and the NSW Local Government Ombudsman. This will change soon when, for example, the NSW Department of Planning & Infrastructure devolves all of the development decision-making to Councils (except for the largest infrastructure investments). It looks like layers of bureaucracy.
In the words of Dr Anne Thurston, transparency is vital to breaking the cycle of poor governance. Councils are accountable to their ratepayers – this includes both Council staff and the body politic, the Councillors. This accountability would be greatly enhanced if information on income and expenditure, and measures of achievement were made broadly available AND comment invited from the community.
As one ratepayer very cogently put it, ‘be very careful when you use the phrase “community consultation”.’ In most experiences, we have seen decisions made secretly and the community consulted after the fact in a cynical exercise with no intention of using their input. The corporate services staff were very anxious to say they fully intended to include all comments. Whether this will have any impact on the final Strategic Plan remains to be seen. However, this ratepayer notes that no intention was made of engaging the community in developing the solutions to its problems.
The community is sick of tick-and-flick jobs. It’s time to get genuine community engagement on the main billboard. It is really good to ask the community for what they would like to have, but do it BEFORE modelling solutions. Study the suggestions, look for commonalities and then build a few ‘straw man’ models. Put these straw men out to the community and ask them if this solves their issues. Get the community engaged in building their own community. Get them to set the measures of achievement (e.g. How will we know when we have a great community?). The community will watch and take part in implementing improvements. Again, this requires transparency. This participation engenders commitment to the final model as well as the process of building it. This process is not governance, but it is engaging.
Let’s be absolutely clear here. Ratepayers pay for the Council and some of what it does (other governments fund the rest). The Community has a right to be part of the process, to be informed, and to be engaged. Ultimately, Council (both staff and body-politic) should be accountable to the Community it serves.