By Jason Smith
Every now and then I grab my ridiculously long to do list and work out how long each item on it is actually going to take. After half a day of planning I get overwhelmed with how many lifetimes I would actually need to complete my list, and I realise I am simply going to have to choose the priorities.
In a nutshell, it appears that's what's happening over at the City of Greater Geraldton headquarters at the moment.
The staff and council have chosen to grab a list of all the things the different departments have been aspiring to do, as well as more suggestions from the community, and work out what we (the people of Geraldton) can actually afford and want as a priority.
Not only are they putting a 10 year plan in place, but they are using something called "participatory budgeting" to decide what the priorities actually are. That basically means everyday folk like you and me decide, rather than employees of the city or councillors.
Since the announcement of the new plan, dubbed #changesCGGcommunity, I've watched with interest and a dash of skepticism to see how this program would unfold, and how much merit the process really deserves.
The idea is not without its detractors. Some have questioned whether this should instead be the job of the council, since they were democratically elected, rather than a random sampling of the community. Others have pointed out that while it may look good on paper, the proof will be in whether the city staff do what they said they would, and more importantly communicate back to the people what has actually been achieved.
It appears that those issues are not going unaddressed by Ken Diehm, the city's CEO, and his team. A lot more energy and time than we've seen previously appears to be going in to this task, and communicating its merits.
And it's also worth noting that Geraldton is playing something of a trailblazer in this. Mayor Ian Carpenter said "The City believes that #changesCGGcommunity initiative is the first of its kind in Australia and that great things will come from it."
What follows is an overview and thorough explanation of the program, the thinking behind it and what lead to its creation. The update has been provided by the City of Greater Geraldton.
#changesCGGcommunity: Overview and Explanation
#changesCGGcommunity is a new way of doing local government.
Local Government is facing challenges in providing infrastructure and services for its residents with a shrinking bucket of money (which comes from ratepayers, the Federal Government, other grants and, in some cases, the sale of assets).
Earlier this year the City embarked upon developing long term strategies for its finances and operations. The City has been doing works detailed in many strategies that contain recommendations for projects but it’s been done the traditional local government way: a bit ad-hoc, lacking community input and with each City department prioritising according to its individual needs. However there has been no long term overview to direct spending or planning.
It was not until the middle of 2013 when the 2029 Beyond Community Strategic Plan was adopted that a way forward became evident. During the three years of 2029 and Beyond, thousands of Greater Geraldton residents had their say about what they wanted from their local government. The clear outcome was that people want more involvement in how rates money and other income is spent, and what it’s spent on.
Council resolved that the best way to continue the dialogue with the community was to find a way to bring together the Community Plan and the strategies, plans and projects contained within the existing guiding documents.
The first task after adopting the 2013-2023 Community Strategic Plan, was to create a 10 year Financial Plan. This took several months and resulted in a document that showed the City’s financial position, now and anticipated for the next ten years. (See the 10 year Financial Plan)
The next task was to create a 10 Year Capital Work Plan (which would guide spending on building, repairing or renewing City infrastructure). To do this every existing project, strategy and plan from every City department was brought together in one list. This mammoth task was completed by the middle of November and the works needed tallied was half a billion dollars!
The Long Term Financial Plan indicates that there is around $68m to spend over the next 10 years on new capital works; it was clear that $500million into $68m doesn’t go!
If Council was to commit to the $500m worth of infrastructure and services wanted by the community, it would mean a huge rate rise every year for the next 50 years. That is not an option.
Council resolved to try Participatory Budgeting: where a group of people are chosen randomly to represent the community by age, race, socio-economic status and gender, to make decisions on behalf of the community.
The 10 year Capital Works Plan Community Panel will be provided with all the information from the existing plans and strategies, as well as the 10 Year Financial Plan. Then they will meet for four full days and work with an expert facilitator to create assessment criteria that can be applied by Council staff to come up with a plan for future capital works. The list of proposed projects is very long and ranges from small inexpensive projects to multi-million dollar ideas. Some of the projects will be highly visible to the community; some will happen underground or be very important but not very noticeable. When the Panel finalises its criteria, each of these projects will be assessed against it. Some projects might fall off the list, some might surprise and come forward in the planning – but whatever happens, Council has committed to listen to their community.
The City council has taken a huge step in moving towards governing through shared responsibility – putting more power for decisions in the hands of local people.
Giving People a Voice is Critical
When Council began the 2029 and Beyond Program three years ago the dream was to introduce more community input into the local government system – a process that was a great challenge, but was embraced by thousands of people across Geraldton who participated in the many public dialogues that has now been encapsulated in the Community Plan.
However there were many thousands of people who did not have their say. The reasons why are varied but mostly it’s because the idea of being able to participate in the city’s decision making was not real to some people. For these residents they could read about what was happening and see the stories around such events as the Designing Our city forum, what largely happened during the three years of 2029 and Beyond was an outpouring of contribution from people who were approached directly for involvement or were the “low hanging fruit” – those people in the community who already have some idea of how to get involved and were just looking for a chance.
But all the events and community consultation has had a ripple effect; people who never thought about engaging with their community or their local government are now seeking out that opportunity.
In recruiting for the panels that will now review the City’s 10 year Capital Works and Services priorities, we were stunned to find out how thrilled people were to be asked to be part of the Participate Budgeting process. It surprised all of the team involved in the project – as we are more used to people saying that they don’t want to be involved and nothing they say will make any difference anyway!
In short, there are many people who have yet to have their say. Though we’re three years in, we’re still at the beginning of this journey towards greater democracy in our City.
The City has always done consultation when it has been developing a new strategy or plan – but in the last three years consultation has evolved and the concept has been embedded in everything the Council does through its Community Engagement Policy. Developing the strategies and plans has taken time and energy from many people; that contribution will be honoured. It’s really important to ask the question: “Now we know what the community wants, how can we build it, how can we fund it, and what does the whole community believe are the priorities?”
Whenever Council develops a strategy of plan, whether its footpaths, parks, community halls, road signs, street lights, drainage, road fixing, swimming pools, airports or the like, the community is always invited to have a say before the final report is written and actions start to be implemented. The process has been good, but it is flawed in that the results can be influenced by the individual agendas that each person or community organisation brings to the consultation. The difference between the Participatory Budgeting process and traditional consultation is found in the principles of PB: “All citizens are entitled to participate, community organisation having no special status of prerogative in this regard”.
The traditional way of implementing Council plans is also inefficient in that there is no integrated works plan: projects are implemented in isolation from other plans or projects being done by other parts of the Council. Finally, while the community is asked at the very beginning what is important, and what it wants included in plans, that is the last time they get a say. City staff and councillors have to make the hard decisions on what projects should be funded. Participatory Budgeting takes all the information available and closes the circle.
Implementing #changesCGGcommunity will provide a more transparent, accountable and democratic budget process to ensure equitable representation of community interests.
Some Feedback from those who have participated thus far
Raina Savage posted to Changes CGG Community - Geraldton:
Truly impressed, and strangely moved, by the experience of observing the Community Panel in process yesterday. As a member of the Independent Review Committee my job is to make sure that the process is genuine and that it is not directed or biased by the interests or views of the City Executive, or dominated by the views of a few squeaky wheels or special interest groups. The panels are not aboutmore consultation, if implemented properly they are actually an opportunity for the local community - with representatives from across the entire socio-economic-cultural-age spectrums - to make real decisions about what the City spends our money on over the next 10 years. I didnt expect to see such a high level of engagement from the participants who were all literally sweating with the effort of getting this right. The comments from across the room in the private feedback session afterwards were generally very positive although everyone acknowledged the challenge involved. We will continue to watch the process with a keen eye - but it is definitely an exciting project.
Brenton Dahlberg posted to Changes CGG Community - Geraldton:
Very nice to be apart of the group, lots of good feedback from everyone, its also nice to meet new people, see you next saturday.