Breaking down silos: Developing a partnership between Council and the Community

Posted: August 11, 2009 by admin in Uncategorized

This is a presentation I am planning to make at the Council meeting on 25 August.

I’d welcome any feed back on what I had to say.

Breaking down silos: Developing a partnership between Council and the Community

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about this important topic today.  At the staff meeting to discuss the changes that the General Manager is making to the Council, Mr Anderson talked about the need to get rid of “silos” which had formed in the Council , and to redevelop a culture where staff saw themselves working for a common goal in a united organisation.

I would like to extend the silo analogy, and put it to the Council that we need to break down the silos that have formed between the Council and the Community, so that we work together to keep our Shire a wonderful place to live and to work.

How do we do this? Communication is the key and I’d like to talk on three ways that I think the Council could improve its communication with the people that it serves

The first is consultation.

Consultation can range from the most cursory “This is what we are doing, and you’ve got a week to get used to it” to a detailed conversation with those who will be affected by the decisions that are being made.

In my opinion the Council errs far too much on the cursory side of consultation.  We see consultations that are not well organised, or have the appearance of being an afterthought.

Consultation done well can save time and effort, as it allows residents of the Shire to feel that they have had a say in the decisions made by the Council; it identifies where there may be conflict, and provides a means to resolve it; it can also throw up new ways to address the issues that the Council is considering.

Putting some resources into improving consultation skills with Council staff could be a very good investment for the Council. I’m not talking about employing more consultants: what I am talking about is developing consultation skills within existing Council staff.  Most consultation does not need to be complex or expensive, and there are real advantages in having staff who are involved in developing policies engaged in consultation. They can directly hear what people think of the proposed changes;  it also gives the impression that Council staff are interested in what the people that they serve think.

I would hope that all senior staff have good consultation skills, and if they don’t , they are given the opportunity to learn them.  There may also be a case to have some staff who are specialists in consulting, and who do the planning and execution of Council consultation

I would also like to see consultation to be an integral part of any new policy or reform or change to any planning instruments.  Twice in this year, councillors have had to include a consultation process to major reforms such as the LEP.  A consultation plan should have been an important part of the report on the LEP. What I am suggesting is that part of the template for any report is provision for a consultation plan. If there is no need for a consultation, the section can be removed, but the staff member writing the report will be reminded of the importance of consulting with the people they serve.

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.

I put it that 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.

Better use of the Internet

The internet is one of the most powerful tools for having much more participation in Council activities.  It is now possible for the Council to have almost real time conversations with residents;  efficiently provide drafts of policies for comment and revision by interested residents, and engage in and start debates about important issues using the net.

I would like to see the Council start to make use of these very powerful tools to develop a much more responsive and consultative culture.

One way may be for Council to sponsor newsletters and village specific websites where information and debate can be encouraged.  These forums would be run by the local community but supported by the Council: 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.

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. It is important though for these people to know that they are seen as valuable partners with the Council in developing democracy in the Shire.

None of these new tools need to be expensive, and many of the younger staff would have a very strong  grasp of how this technology could be used in the Council. Perhaps some of the younger staff could be given the opportunity to experiment with some of these new web tools

Using community skills

Eurobodalla Shire is a place where many  people come because they have fallen in love with this wonderful place, and are very committed to ensuring that it maintains its beauty.  There are active community associations in many of the towns and villages, and there are also skilled and experienced people who have retired or are not working full time who would, with the right incentives be happy to share their skills with the Council. These incentives don’t necessarily need to be money, it can be that they know they are being listened to, and their skills are being taken seriously.

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 last August. 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.

Once again having staff who are used to working with volunteers, and with committees helps the Council to make best use of the human resources available in the community.

In conclusion I am very glad that the new General Manager does want to change the culture of the Council to one that is more responsive to the community that it serves. I wish you the best, and I hope that these suggestions are taken as a token of my best wishes for the changes that you are making.

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