Meaningful citizen engagement - to be embraced, not feared

Local governments everywhere are being challenged by the move towards better, more meaningful citizen engagement. The new Local Government Bill before the Victorian Parliament will require Councils to have a policy with specific community engagement principles, aiming to, among other things, "enable meaningful and informed engagement." Chris Eddy reflects on his experience as CEO at a local council in Melbourne's inner west.

In recent years in Victoria, some Councils have tested the waters with various participative or deliberative engagement processes, on varying scales to develop long term community visions and plans, formulate budgets and strategies, and solve local neighbourhood problems.

As CEO at Hobsons Bay City Council, in 2016 I was proud to launch a community panel model of engagement to develop the Hobsons Bay 2030 community vision. We weren't the first to try it by any means, but it was our first attempt at participative democracy.

I must be honest, it was a big leap of faith for Councillors and officers. It was a major change from the traditional method of community engagement, which used to involve developing a document and putting it out for comment. If you were lucky, you would get half a dozen submissions.

The result of the 2030 visioning process, with the expert help of Keith Greaves, Kimbra White and the MosaicLab team, was a community built vision that now helps to guide the Council's long term planning and strategy development.


Another fine example is the Neighbourhood Project, a initiative of Resilient Melbourne and Co-Design Studio, which aims to empower 'local leaders to shape neighbourhoods that thrive.' Hobsons Bay was one of three Councils (the others being Whitehorse and Cardinia) to participate in the first round of projects, focussed on the Brooklyn community and leading to a long awaited dog park, a festive movie night, and the artistic activation of a laneway. However, in my view the real value was derived from the connections that were made - neighbour to neighbour; and community members to Council, both councillors and officers. I suspect it may have also helped to inspire and motivate some future leaders of the community, potentially even future Council candidates.

I highlight these examples because of my personal connection to them. However, there are many other examples of local governments in Victoria showing leadership in this space, including citizens' juries in the cities of Melbourne and Geelong in recent years.

Of course, not all local governments have the resources to conduct processes on the scale of some of these latter examples. The new Local Government Act (if passed) recognises this, requiring the form of engagement being proposed to have regard to 'the significant and complexity of the subject' and 'the level of resourcing required.'

All Councils will be required to have a community engagement policy, that gives effect to legislated community engagement principles within six months of that section of the Act coming into force. As this is being contemplated (and hopefully planned for) in the coming months, here is a timely piece on the future of civic engagement from the US, describing some different models and some lessons from recent experience in New York.


Chris Eddy is an experienced Chief Executive with background in government administration and media. Most recently he was CEO of Hobsons Bay City Council in Melbourne's inner west

Posted by @jrostant