What if the community became the decision-makers?


It’s almost a week since the CoCreate Adelaide gathering and I’m still feeling warm and fuzzy from seeing such a great group of motivated individuals come together to identify things from within their community that they would like to develop, enhance, or change.

It wasn’t just a talk shop – this was a group of people who were willing to chip in together to make real changes. Hearing exchanges of solutions such as “I need a space to set up a hub” quickly followed by “I’ve got a space you can use” highlighted to me the potential for change to occur that is led by the community; happens at a quick pace that is so unfamiliar to our bureaucrat-led society; and is undertaken on a shoestring budget, if any budget at all. It reminded me a lot of David Engwicht and the messages he preaches through Creative Communities.

Having spent several years working with Government organisations in helping them to engage with the community, from my clients perspectives it has often felt like pulling hens teeth (whatever that might mean) to get members of the public engaged in their decision making processes. So you can only imagine my amazement as the team behind CoCreate Adelaide gathered 60 individuals in a dirty, disused warehouse on a Saturday morning – charged them $10 to be there and asked them to buy their own lunch! Whatever comes as an outcome of CoCreate Adelaide, there is without a doubt, something to be learned from this approach of bringing together like-minded, passionate people! Free lunches aren’t what brings people together! That’s a whole separate blog post and it’s on the to do list.

This space of community-led activity felt like home for me. This is where I began and a space I love. I often talk of the early-Blair years in which my career began – the years of social inclusion and community development. I love seeing people realise their own potential and become empowered to act on that potential. I love the sense of ownership and belonging that this brings to someone about the community in which they live.

A conversation with a fellow engagement practitioner who works for a traditional decision-making Government organisation at CoCreate Adelaide (yes, a plain-clothed public servant or two were amongst us) led me to pondering on how this approach had the potential to completely flip something such as the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation on its head! I’m a huge fan on the spectrum and use it in the majority of my client-based work. It really helps traditional engagement processes to be transparent and succinct in the level to which they engage with impacted stakeholders. It is written from the perspective that the decision-maker is the one who engages with the community. In this instance (and generally in my work) the decision-maker is the Government.

But what if the community became the decision-maker? And the Government be the one who is on the receiving end of engagement? I’ve created the above graphic to explore the type of promises that the community could make to the Government in this situation. As I explored this idea of putting the community in the centre of the process, I realised that this would make the spectrum of engagement BEGIN with empowered communities. How to begin with an empowered community? Well, that’s another blog post and it’s also on the to do list.

The community would then determine the level to which it wants and needs to engage with the Government. Collaborate gets my vote.

Don’t get me wrong on any of this, I’m not anti Government and I’m not suggesting we can take a community-led approach without Government. What I am suggesting is that we stop talking about the community as ‘them out there’ and challenge ourselves to think outside of the models of community engagement that we’ve all become so accustomed to. Government as decision-makers are not the be all and end all.

Each and everyone of us has the potential to be a fully-fledged decision maker.

I would love to know your thoughts.


  • Tamir April 19, 2013 - 1:47 pm Reply

    What a brilliant event Becky, it seems like some people out there would like to be engaged in the real world and not only during official consultations.

    I agree with you that community participation and decision making is important and needs a shift in methodology as well as new tools at the government end.

    As social media, mobile applications and digital CRM’s become more ingrained into day to day life, I’m sure we will see more citizens, politicians and council staff working together. It is also going to be easier, cheaper and more efficient than ever to engage a large group of citizens in discussions.

    Thanks for posting, sharing and introducing me to Creative Communities!

  • Tracey April 19, 2013 - 1:47 pm Reply

    That’s a really interesting approach Becky and WOW what a fantastic set of outcomes I’d imagine would come out of it. It’s incredible what talent, connectivity and generosity is uncovered in a group that is passionate and “empowered” to take action and effect change – we need more of it EVERYWHERE – in business, government and our society in general.

    And the CoCreate event looks smashing. What an inspiring space. keep up the great work.

  • Erik Tilkemeier April 22, 2013 - 11:34 am Reply

    Ideologically, in a democracy, the citizens are the decision makers. Government representatives are voted into office by the community and expected to support their constituents’ interests in programs and policies. Unfortunately, we all know that “things” (greed, politics, special interests, etc.) get in the way of that ideology.

    The concept of community as decision makers is one way for the people to take back the power that they bestow on elected officials, or at least keep them honest. Community engaging government, as necessary, to support citizen driven change occurs in strong resilient communities. Effective local governments welcome citizen engagement and operate transparently to ensure a high degree of social capital.

    Social Ecology is the understanding of this process. Check out http://www.jkagroup.com to learn more.

  • Kimbra White April 22, 2013 - 12:19 pm Reply

    I think this is very interesting Becky. I have often thought about what public participation would look like from the community perspective when the decision making power is with them in some way rather than participation being based on the level of power that a decision maker is prepared to give away. Your alternate spectrum has provided a way of thinking about this.
    To continue Erik’s comments about community as the decision maker – I wonder what would be needed for us to perceive that to be the case?
    By the way have you seen Martin Butcher’s reverse spectrum that takes into a number of negative levels such as manipulation?

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