Everyday democracy

Posted: August 9, 2010 by admin in Uncategorized

Democracy is something that we take for granted, but like all good things we need to work at it to keep it functioning well.  Wollongong residents got a clear idea of what happens when democracy is allowed to falter, with the revelations of the ICAC enquiry earlier this year, and the subsequent sacking of the Council, with no elections in sight until 2012.

Wollongong Against Corruption was formed to build a stronger democracy in Wollongong and to develop a culture which does not take democracy for granted. Last Saturday I attended a conference organised by this group, which had many ideas that we can adapt in any local Government area.  As NSW has local government elections in less than a month, it is a good time to think about the type of democracy that we would like .

The first and strongest message for me was that we need “everyday democracy”.   This type of democracy involves individuals taking responsibility for ensuring that the best decisions are made, that our system of government is fair and just, serves the people, and our Councillors and other politicians work regularly with the community to ensure that we have a strong democracy. Like everyday foods, everyday democracy is something that has to be worked at and sometimes can be humdrum, but with some imagination and commitment it can be very satisfying, and ensures we have a strong and healthy constitution.

The representative democracy that we are familiar with could be called “festival democracy”: we have lots of excitement and spectacle every three or four years, we vote, and then we don’t do anything very much until the next time. Festival fare is sweet and tasty, but in the end isn’t very filling, and if it is your main source of sustenance, its easy to get lazy, fat and corrupted.

Participatory or Community Democracy is defined by the Wollongong Against Corruption group as “a process whereby all citizens have greater rights and responsibilities in in how their localities and cities are governed”.  In order to do this we need to:

  • Find ways to get people actively involved and informed in political life
  • build capacity in local communities to engage constructively in policy making and problem resoultion
  • build structures in local communities where citizens can take an active, and valued role in decision making
  • build decision making structures that are based on concensus and collegiality
  • Ensure that decisions are made that are accountable to the public,and we are all given the information we need to know why a decision was made.
  • The list looks daunting and at first sounds very idealistic, but it is not: if we want to,  there are practical down to earth things we can do now to build Community Democracy.

Active involvement

People want to be involved in decisions which affect them and their community. When they are given the chance they will become actively involved. We all know of meetings that have been called where many hundreds of people attend because they want their voice to be heard.

For those of us who want Community Democracy, our job is to find ways to encourage people to have their voice heard in a meaningful way.

Councillors and other politicians can do this by engaging the local community in decisions which affect them in a way that shows that their views and decisions will be taken seriously.  This might be a village or town meeting to discuss local planning issues, or even better, legislate that all developments have to go past a village or town meeting, and the resolutions of that meeting have to be included and discussed in the report before the development can be considered by Council. Developers and some Councillors might object that this will involve unacceptable delays, but this process may mean that there is more community support for a project, less delays as a result of objections and protest, and even some creative ideas from people who will be directly affected by the development.

We can have Council meetings that cater to the needs of the electors rather than the Councillors. This might include having night meetings, and also encouraging community debate at Council meetings.  Community debate should be seen as the life blood of the Council, rather than a nuisance to be endured, and a well chaired meeting can easily include Community involvement which does not lead to unwieldy decision making or overly long meetings. If the mayor or other councillors do not have the necessary chairing and meeting procedure skills to incorporate community input, the cost of training them in these skills would be a good investment of Council funds.

Council can sponsor newsletters and village specific websites where information and debate can be encouraged.  I’m not talking about the propaganda newsletters we get now, but real forums where people can be informed about issues that will affect them, and where they can have a direct involvement in resolving the issue.

All of the above can be done by the new councillors elected in September.

We who are already active can also do our bit to show that active involvement will achieve results.  Many people believe that they are only one person, and their voice doesn’t matter.  Others have become cynical about being “consulted” and then the decisions and recommendation being ignored.

We need to make sure that our meetings and decision making styles encourage community involvement, and respect for all the voices that make up our community. This might mean actively seeking the voices of people who are not usually involved in community activities, developing meeting styles that encourage people who are not confident speakers to put their points of view, building a consensus approach to decision making which accommodates less confident participants.

If this is not already the preferred style of active community groups, it is not a hard thing to make these changes.

Build capacity in local communities to engage constructively in policy making and problem resoultion

One of the barriers to active involvement are people’s perceptions that they are not knowledgeable enough to make a constructive contribution to the issues of the day.

Two things need to be done here.  The first is to help people realise that they are the best experts around in knowing what is right for them, and right for the community they live in. The second is to provide the community with the technical knowledge and tools they need to become involved in policy making and problem resolution.

The first point will resolve itself as people become more comfortable with taking an active role in Council affairs. Once community input is taken seriously, people see that their suggestions may very well be put into action,and community members will quickly realise that they do have expertise which they need to use wisely.

In our complex world, there are technical requirements that are not easily accessible to community members, and often expert help is required to get the best result.

John Hatton made a very interesting suggestion at the Making Community Democracy Work Conference. He proposed that Councils make staff available to the community who are responsible for providing support and training in issues which will be considered by the Council.  These staff who, although paid for by the council, would be recruited and employed by the community, could help with applying for grants, making submissions and reports to Council from Community members, provide advice to community members on technical issues, or find suitable advisors if they are not qualified themselves. These staff members could also advocate on behalf of communities at an administrative level.

John also reminded us that there is a vast pool of expertise in the community itself.  We have people trained in town planning, law, social and physical sciences and all other types of skills and trades who are part of the community. We need to tap into this pool, and make use of the expertise that is there.

As community activists we can work to identify and build community skills, provide community support for people providing their skills for community benefit, and find ways to build up skills in our own community.  We could find ways where community members work and learn skills from each other, or connect community members to mentors who can pass on skills.

With a little effort and goodwill, we can tap into the wisdom and expertise that everyone has and use it to build a stronger, more confident community.  What we require from ourselves as community activists, and also from our politicians is the will to give back this power to the communities, and support them when they use it.

Build structures in local communities where citizens can take an active, and valued role in decision making

This follows from the last point.  Local communities need structures that they can use to be involved in the decisions that affect them.  These can be physical structures, like adequate meeting rooms that are affordable for all groups to use, to ready access to the internet, to ways that decisions are made in the Council which encourage and value community involvement.

Physical Structures

We are social animals, and we like to physically meet each other, so it is important that our villages and towns have places where the residents can meet.  These meeting areas need to be affordable and accessible for all who want to use them.  It is not good enough to have meeting rooms which are not available if you do not have enough money to hire them, or are not accessible to people such as those with disabilities. There are meeting rooms and public halls dotted across our shires, and it would not be difficult for the Council to conduct an audit of these, make this information available publicly, and work with the groups who own them to encourage the fullest possible public access to the buildings.  Council could also provide the funds to hire halls or meeting rooms when necessary to allow communities to meet and discuss issues of importance to them.

Internet

The internet is becoming an important part of our social fabric, and is one of the most effective tools to encourage community activism and involvement. While websites are best developed by the communities themselves, to meet their own needs, the Council could provide support to the communities, both in hosting websites, and providing technical expertise where needed.  Of course there will be many in the community that will be able to develop and maintain their community’s website, and the Council may not need to be involved at all in day to day management of the website. In some ways this is preferable, as the networking and discussion capacity of the website is controlled by the community rather than the Council.

Council Structures

Council procedures and meeting styles can be an impediment to encouraging everyday democracy.  Many of these procedures and styles were developed to discourage people from taking an active role in council affairs, and can be changed to make people want to be active participants in their Council. If we had a council that was committed to “every day Democracy” we could have an audit of procedures in the Council which is designed to identify what can be changed to encourage community involvement in Council matters. Of course this audit would need to be carried out independently and with strong community involvement.

Community structures

Community consultative structures are important tools to develop confidence among community members that they can have a constructive contribution to local affairs.  These structures need to be built by the community with the support of Council.  Some towns may use traditional progress associations to consult with their communities. Other places may develop quite different structures.  The role of the Council is to provide whatever support is needed to the community to build the consultative structure that is best for them, not most convenient for the Council or its staff. There may also need to be consultative structures built for different community groups, including indigenous groups, youth and children, the homeless, and young families.  Each of these groups will have their strengths and weaknesses which will need to be accommodated in the consultative groups that they develop.

The key to all this is that the Council is the helper not the director in building these structures.  A consultative structure that is imposed will at best appear to work, but it will be unlikely to engage the people it is meant to represent.  A consultative structure that is built by the group that owns it is much more likely to represent the views of its constituents.

One of the best ways that the Council can tell the community that it really wants to have “everyday democracy” is to give every encouragement to strong, independent and well functioning community consultative groups.

Build decision making structures that are based on consensus and collegiality

One of the biggest turn offs for most people to active involvement in politics is the unedifying sight of ignorant and unnecessary brawls masquerading as debate. People know they can argue in a civilized way at home, and don’t want to have anything to do with abuse in public life.   One of the best ways to encourage “everyday democracy” is to encourage a culture in the Council that is based on civilized debate, and an ethos of collegiality.

It can be assumed that all Councillors are working for the common goal of making the best decisions possible for the Shire.  On this basis, the Councillors are colleagues working together. Of course there will be differences, but as abuse would not be an acceptable way to win an argument in the workplace, the same should apply in the Council chamber. An abusive workplace does not encourage openness or innovative thinking: neither does an abusive chamber.

The new Council can make reforms to the way that it conducts itself in the Chamber, so that people are encouraged to take an active role in the debate.  One easy reform would be to recognise that the chamber is a work-place and therefore the rules of workplace harrassment and abuse apply in the chamber.

Community activists could encourage civilised debate in the Chamber by recognising Councillors who debate well.  Perhaps we could contribute an award to the local Business Awards recognising the best debater in the Council. The media could also encourage good behaviour by the Councillors in the way it reports Council business.We all can play a part in ensuring we have good well reasoned debate in the Council.

Many matters before the Council are not contentious, and some that are can be resolved through negotiating.  The Councillors can be trained in  negotiation and conflict resolution, and be expected to use these skills in their dealings as Councillors.

These are not hard reforms to make, and can make a real difference to the atmosphere in the Council.

Ensure that decisions are made that are accountable to the public,and we are all given the information we need to know why a decision was made.

The Councillors and other politicians are servants of the people, and are therefore accountable to them. Despite what some politicians would like to think, their first loyalty is to the people who pay them, not to the political party that they support. On this basis, the electors have every right to know what decisions are being made on their behalf, and the reasons these decisions are being made.

Councillors at Wollongong Council lost sight of this basic fact, and a culture of corruption was able to develop.  What can we do at local government level to ensure this doesn’t happen in other Shires?

The first thing to do, is to ensure we encourage everyday democracy, where there is a strong culture of active community involvement in our local politics. Corruption thrives best when there are few people watching or taking an interest.

The proposed Wollongong Charter supports Independent Hearing Assessment Panels which “make use of expert independent specialists such as planners alawyers.  They are designed to reduce lobbying by developers and provide a check on in undue influence on decision making. They make recommendations ot Council and include community representation…Major and controversial assissments would include representation from elected representatives of [relevant]community forums.”(Wollongong Against Corruption: Wollongong Charter for Ethics and good Governance: Draft 16 August 2008 Page 15)

Second we need to put mechanisms in place to ensure that decisions are made transparently, which means that both Councillors and senior officials are obliged to keep detailed written records of all their dealings with individuals and organisations that may benefit from their decisions. These need to be public documents and readily accessible to the public.  There need to be substantial sanctions against Councillors and Senior Staff who do not report relevant meetings or decisions that were made at these meetings.

Third we need to ensure that there are mechanisms in the Council which actively support whistleblowers. Whistleblowers are the canaries in the mine, and unlike the canaries, we need to make sure they survive when they give us early warning of corruption. We can make it clear that any suspected corruption is to be reported to senior management, and that they are obliged to investigate any allegations that are made by staff.

Fourth we need to ensure that political donations are banned. Political donations lead to split loyalties, and therefore erode democracy. The politicians are servants of the people, and their only loyalty is to them. Donations dilute and can corrupt this relationship.

Fifth transparency requires that the financial records of Councillors and senior staff are also made public to reduce the possibility of corruption.  Financial affairs would include assets, loans, business partnerships and relationships, donations and gifts.

Sixth the use of confidential reports and “Commercial in Confidence” needs to be kept to an absolute minimum. Decisions about these categories need to be made by more than one person, and they need to give detailed reasons why it is in the public interest  to keep the matter in the report confidential. If it cannot be shown to be in the public interest,which would not include protecting a corporation or individual from public debate of their proposal, then the report should be discussed in open Council.

Seven Freedom of Information should be affordable.  The Wollongong Charter proposes that Public information should be available at no cost(apartfrom printing). The Charter goes on “We have too many cases where the public is denied access to information which is collected by public servants, paid for by the general public, and yet denied to the general public.  In all cases where information is withheld Council must convince the Ombusdsman…of reasons why information requested by the public should not be available to them.”

If Democracy is something we value its worth working for.  Everyday Democracy needs some more effort than the festival democracy we’re used to, its not as glamorous, but it will keep our democracy, strong healthy and vigorous.

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