This week, the Victorian Auditor-General has put a spotlight on the state’s local government sector and has found that councils are inconsistent with keeping their communities informed and part of the democratic process.
The Auditor-General Andrew Greaves tabled his report Public Participation and Community Engagement: Local Government Sector, which assessed the performance of the Local Government Victoria, City of Ballarat, Cardinia Shire Council, Maribyrnong City Council, Maroondah City Council, Mitchell Shire Council, Murrindindi Shire Council, and Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.
Since councils make decisions about a diverse range of community needs, such as recreational facilities, planning and waste disposal, evaluating their level of community engagement is important because transparent and well-managed public participation can help to better inform local government policies and their transition into effective strategies, programs and projects.
‘The real-life experiences of community stakeholders can make a valuable contribution to decision-making, and an open and deliberative process can enhance stakeholders’ perceptions of the credibility of a decision,’ the report said.
However, inadequate public participation can alienate sections of the community and undermine trust, and is more likely to result in poorly informed decisions, according to the report.
The report concluded that the councils audited typically “have strong public participation frameworks” that provide them with the tools they need to undertake better practice consultation.
‘However, councils do not routinely apply these tools in all of their public participation activities. Councils do not have adequate processes for documenting and evaluating these activities, which compromises the value of councils’ public participation practices,’ the report said.
To measure councils against an established standard of communication, the Auditor-General used the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) model of public participation in its assessments.
IAP2 specifies five levels of public engagement:
- Inform and Consult—these first two levels typically occur when a council has already made a decision and wants to either communicate that decision to the community, or seek opinions on the decision.
- Involve and Collaborate—the third and fourth levels involve a two-way flow of information, when a council shares information within and across stakeholder groups during the decision-making process.
- Empower—the fifth level is when the council and the community jointly make decisions.
An example of this standard not being followed was outlined in the report.
‘All of the audited councils fulfilled their statutory obligations for public participation in their council budgets and council plans, although we found that three councils had already made their decisions before conducting the public participation activities, and they simply wanted to communicate that decision to the public, or seek opinions on the decision,’ the report said.
It said this practice is at the lowest end of the IAP2 spectrum—Inform.
‘This approach increases the risk that the community will perceive that they have not been able to have a say in the budget preparation process.’
The report recommends that councils:
- assess their public participation policies and associated resources against the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) model, update them as necessary, and promote their use throughout the council.
- build monitoring, reporting and evaluation activities into their public participation activities.
- develop and document comprehensive public participation plans and their outcomes.