Thursday, April 13, 2006

Talkback: How to engage with your local community over planning

By Bruce Fraser

Here's the challenge for local body communications staff.

How do you best communicate with and engage your regional community (or city or district depending on which arm of local government you work for) over the council's 10-year plan?

The Local Government Act 2002 requires each council to create a council community plan to provide integrated decision-making with a long-term focus while being publicly accountable and involving the public.

Of the barriers to be addressed, the strongest is public scepticism that their views count for little and won't make any real difference.

Some believe councils have already made up their minds and are merely going through the consultative process with little if any real intention of taking notice of the public.

Others take the view that democracy means voting for your local body representative every three years and letting them get on with it. If I like what you do, I'll vote you back in. If not, I'll pick someone else. These people often like to be kept informed but think their lives are busy enough with issues that are more important.

Yet another barrier is money. If the council spends too much by way of advertisements, flyers, letterbox drops and displays, the community will object to their rates being used in this way. Keep me informed, many say, but don't spend too much doing it.

A seachange is going on here though. The old ways are no longer good enough to meet community expectations and government directions. Internationally, communities are demanding more say in what happens to their social, economic, cultural and environmental wellbeing. Guide notes say "at the heart of the Local Government Act is a desire to strengthen the concept of local democracy and the sustainable well being of communities".

The task of the council communicator is to guide his or her councillors and staff in interesting, creative and meaningful ways of engaging their communities in this process. We could each easily meet the compliance requirements of the act and do the same old things. Or we could rise to the challenge, address the barriers with clear, intelligent communications planning and provide real opportunities for people to engage with us.

Communities, through the outcomes processes that have been running over the past 18 months in all localities, have set out what sort of places they want to live in. Our challenge now is to work with them and find out exactly how they want local government to help achieve those outcomes.

American poet Walt Whitman wrote: "The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges, or churches, or parlours, nor even in its newspapers or inventors, but always most in the common people."

Let's acknowledge those people in our communities and genuinely involve them in our 10-year plans. As local body communicators, we need to embrace the change and engage more strongly with communities.

Here are a few simple ways we can engage meaningfully with our communities over our long-term council community plans:

Firstly, get rid of that ugly phrase "the long-term council community plan" and call it something the community can understand. Something like what it really is - the 10-year plan.

Secondly, commit to a plain English approach. Provide information in a way that suits our target audiences. We face a major challenge in avoiding bureaucratic and technical language. Much of our work is steeped in such material but we have duties as communicators to convert this into ways that will mean something to our communities.

Thirdly, provide a variety of ways communities can express their views on our proposals. The act says people can make a submission in any way that suits them. We need to think creatively about channels that will match the variety of preferences people want.

Fourthly, we need to take our messages to the people, not expect them to come to us all the time. We should think about how we can go to their spaces, to the places where they feel comfortable.

Lastly, we should provide clear feedback to communities to show how their input has made a difference There's nothing new here - many councils have been trying these and other approaches over the past few years.

We can also progress and get better at this if we also learn from each other's successes and failures.

* Bruce Fraser is Environment Bay of Plenty's community relations group manager.

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