It’s time for a conversation

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I’m always fascinated to observe community action over issues of importance.  Community activism and lobbying is usually a text book case of a frustrated community who isn’t being heard, no matter how loud they shout.  So they have to shout louder.  And louder.  But is anyone listening?

I’ll use an example from within my local community but will hand over to wine guru (consequently a god in my eyes), James Halliday for an explanation:

“The McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Association is understandably up in arms about a proposal for South Australia’s largest home builder – Fairmont Homes – to convert 77 hectares of a total of 177 ha presently used for cereal crops into high density urban housing and the usual supermarket/warehouse/Bunnings-type shopping centres. Phase 1 would see 1200 dwellings and 2500 residents, Phase 2 yet to be disclosed. Curiously, indeed astonishingly, none of the many hundreds of pages of planning documents include any use of the key words ‘tourism, grape, food, and or wine industry’. At no point in the entire process was the community consulted about any of the decisions relating to the planning process until the obligatory ‘community consultation’ period at the end of planning. Indeed the community was not notified of the consultation period, and became aware of it two days before the closing of the process.”  Read more at The Tentacles of Urban Sprawl, James Halliday, 21 September 2010

I’ll confess to not knowing all of the facts about the issue in question but know for certain that there is an angry community (in fact, several angry communities in relation to various ‘urban sprawl’ threats in South Australia at the moment) who feel that they haven’t been consulted.  And if there was a consultation process, no one told them about it or gave them reasonable time to provide submissions.  As we so often see, consultation processes regularly expect members of the public to provide formal written submissions in response to hefty documents without clear information as to what is negotiable, what isn’t negotiable, and so on.  It’s often a complicated process that only the hardened and well resourced community member participates in, and even then it requires a decent amount of time to pull something together.

The concerned community is passionate about this topic.  It’s important to them and they won’t back down.  Their concern is not just the specific housing development in question but to quote local businessman James Hook, “Our region needs proper planning, not a system of sprawl out and build services later” .  With the use of social media on their side, I remain regularly updated of the protest plans through pages such as ‘We Oppose Seaford Heights’ and ‘Stop Urban Sprawl – Mount Barker’ (with collectively over 1000 fans, and they are just the groups I’m aware of) and the more they are ignored, the louder and more angry these communities get.

There is growing debate within the South Australian community in relation to population growth and the impact this will have on urban development and infrastructure.  But at the moment any discussions happening within Government are happening very separately to those happening in the community.  The longer there is that divide, the less healthy the relationship between Government and community becomes.  The less healthy that relationship, the less likely that sound, informed decisions are made.  It’s a situation without a happy ending for anyone.

The solution?  As simple as it sounds, I believe that a conversation is needed.  Imagine a Government that opened up the opportunity for some healthy dialogue and deliberation not just between them and the community, but between the community themselves.  But most importantly, a Government that strives to reach the broad community to invite them in to the conversation; provides straightforward, timely and safe spaces for healthy debate and consultation; actively listens and takes on board the issues and topics they hear from the community insight; and transparently makes decisions that are based on the conversation that has taken place.  This is no easy feat and would need careful coordination and very thorough planning but with the right commitment, could certainly be achievable.

It’s a simple and very ancient philosophy on which I base all of my work in community engagement:  Tell me I forget, Show me I remember, Involve me I understand.  Confucius 450BC.

Involve me, I understand

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Official launch of the Matson Library mural

Gloucester Citizen article, October 1999

Back in 1999 a young graduate embarked on her first role in community work.  The role was Community Involvement Officer for a Neighbourhood Centre in an area of high deprivation, dense housing, poor access to services and so on.  Nothing learned at university would prepare this youngster for the challenges she was to face in the coming years.  That young enthusiastic graduate was me and the lessons I learned in that first job have never left me.

One of the first pieces of work I jumped in to was working with a colleague to plan and coordinate the transformation of a grey, often covered in graffiti, wall on the side of the local library.  It was decide that the local children in the area would be involved in designing a colourful mural reflecting nature.  Local schools and youth clubs jumped on board and before we knew it a design had been created.  I remember many cold, windy and wet Autumn days spent working with the children to create the mural on the side of the building and it was a proud moment when the children witnessed the mural be officially launched by the local MP.  I remember a true sense of ownership being present.

As the years went by I would walk or drive past the mural and it was always there – immaculate and colourful – retaining that sense of community pride and ownership.  I always used this piece of work as a great example of community development, in that by involving the children and young people in designing and painting the mural, the mural would hold a certain respect within the community and would remain untouched for many years.  I particularly remember some of the children who participated in the mural lived directly opposite it and I sensed they would keep a 24/7 watch on it!

Revisiting the Matson Library mural 11 years later in 2010

Revisiting the Matson Library mural 11 years later in 2010

Having moved away, I was fortunate to be back in the UK last month and dared to go off route and take a drive past the mural.  Would it still be there 11 years later?  Would it be covered in grafitti?  As I turned the corner and saw the dazzling mural still there 11 years on, I couldn’t help but feel a hint of job satisfaction!

So the lesson to be learned?  Involving people in a process and ensuring ownership of community activity, development and assets creates community pride.  The value of community pride off the scale.

Always a facilitator

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Name badges for my friends - always the facilitator

I am delighted to share this article written by Carla Rogers, Principal at Evolve Facilitation and Coaching. The article resonated with me and I chuckled at Carla’s observations of the facilitation skills used in hosting a party! Perhaps now my friends will now forgive me for those times they’ve been forced to wear name badges when they’ve come to my parties?

On a more ‘serious’ note though, the article highlights the observation that the best facilitation is often invisible.

Wow! February and March have been busy months at Evolve. I am recovering from a big week of festivities, where my partner and I celebrated birthdays that ended in 0’s. We combined the 0’s and had a centenary celebration on the weekend. During the planning for the festivities and the ‘big event’, I got to thinking: How much of our ‘facilitation skills’ do we consciously and sub-consciously bring to the fore in social events?

I believe that there is something unique about facilitation as a skill set and practice. It is both learned and innate. Its uniqueness is that there is opportunity for practice in every interaction, and also how we facilitate ourselves, inwardly and outwardly.

The ‘tie died’ theme party was held at our local surf club with stunning views across the beach, Montague Island and the magnificent headland and rock formations. It was, as you could imagine, very colourful. My first shock (and assumption – never assume in facilitation) was that nearly all of our party goers did not have tie-dye in their wardrobe. I have to admit, perhaps with retrospective embarrassment, that I had enough tie-die in my wardrobe to decorate the hall and dress most of the party.

Our first conscious piece of facilitation was the invite – setting the theme, and laying the picture of what people could expect (e.g. kids would be entertained for a couple of hours). Our second was to adopt some Open Space Technology principles – whoever shows up are the right people and when its over its over. Our third was to have a good look at the layout of the venue, where we placed food, drinks etc, how we could create a space that was easy, comfortable, that encouraged interaction and provided opportunities for dancing, group interaction and quieter conversations. Our fourth (and possibly more controversial) was to use name tags. To make the name tags less formal, we used the tie dye theme. We also had some of our practiced facilitators (e.g my mother) offering name tags as they met and chatted to people.

Luckily, many of our friends are natural born sub-consciously competent ‘facilitators’, who encouraged interaction between ‘strangers’. One of those was the children’s entertainer – the pirate. I was very impressed with the way that she seamlessly integrated into the party. As some parents remarked “Wow – where did you get this women – I did not see my children for 2 hours”. She wandered through like the pied piper (many times) gathering the children, entertaining them, they would then disperse for a while and she would regather them (particularly our daughter who is very much into the Open Space ‘law of two feet’ – wandering rapidly between activities). All in all, the pirate managed to entertain over 20 children for 2.5 hours – a very advanced facilitation skill set if I ever observed one.

While I am observing and dissecting the facilitation principles overtly here now – our goal was that any ‘facilitation’ was invisible – which I think the best facilitation, generally, is. And most importantly, my partner, daughter and I had a hoot, and enjoyed the only 100th birthday party that we are likely to have.

By Carla Rogers of Evolve Facilitation and Coaching. Please visit Carla’s web site at for additional articles and resources.

Community Immunity?

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In my last newsletter I pondered on the definition of community engagement. Over the last few weeks I’ve narrowed it down and have been giving some thought to the term ‘community’ and wonder again whether our bureaucratic jargon is biting us on the bum.

The question I have, is do the ‘community’ identify as being the ‘community’ that we refer to so often?

Of course, one of the essential stages of planning any community engagement activity is identifying who is going to be affected by the decision, and therefore defining who ‘the community’ are and who needs to be involved. This really helps the organisation that is planning the engagement activity, but does it do any more than that?

According to Wikipedia, the word ‘community’ has traditionally been used to describe a group of interacting people living in a common location but even in the mid-1950’s sociologists had 94 discrete definitions of the word. Of course, we all know that these days people living in a common location don’t necessarily interact (if you don’t speak to your neighbours you are still part of the community aren’t you?!) and that a person can be part of more communities than just one defined by the geographic location of where they live.

In the health field, we often talk about ‘consumer participation’ and again this raises the debate of whether a consumer knows they are referred to as a consumer! My partner recently came across this term and to him it sounded completely alien. Not a great start in encouraging participation in decision making around men’s health!

So, perhaps by using the terms ‘community’ and ‘consumer’ we aren’t actually reaching the people we are meant to be reaching. If people don’t know that they are part of the targeted community, they probably won’t get involved.

I am proud to have named the issue of the community not knowing they are the community ‘Community Immunity’ and look forward to the term being used in bureaucratic boardrooms across the world in years to come!

One big happy community?

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Ariel view of Port Pirie

I recently spent a couple of days in Port Pirie, a small town about 3 hours north of Adelaide with a population of around 13,000.  The aim of my visit was to help my client identify ways to work with the Aboriginal community to promote healthy eating.

One of the easiest traps we can fall in to in our work is popping people in to neat little categories that support our strategic targets and goals.  Frequently used categories include the Aboriginal community, the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse community, low income families and people with disabilities.

Whilst people do have commonalities and specific needs that should be considered, we must not think that an entire community can be worked with in the same way.

The biggest lesson for me on my trip to Port Pirie was how despite the Aboriginal population in the area being a relatively small one, it was very clearly fractionalised into smaller groups within the community.  It was blatantly clear that by providing a service that would attract one section of the community, another section of the community would be put off.

I certainly don’t think this is limited to the Aboriginal community in Port Pirie.  I think it is reflective of everywhere and we need to remember to try not to categorise people just for the sake of our strategic plans!

Capturing the attention of a thirty-something

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How do we best invite the general public to get involved with decision making that affects them?  Over the last month I decided to take my ‘community engagement practitioner’ hat off and to put on my ‘young-ish woman living in South Australia’ hat on and monitor how many times I came across requests for my input into decision making!

In the car park – Adelaide City Council

After a recent trip to the hairdressers in Adelaide, I was returning to my car which was park in one of those big multistory car parks.  I remember observing some big Adelaide City Council posters next to the lifts.  As I waited, I read that Adelaide City Council was in the process of conducting a community consultation on their Draft 2009-10 Business Plan and Budget and they wanted my feedback.

What a great initiative of Adelaide City Council to put information where the general public could see it!

I didn’t take action on the poster and provide any feedback but providing ways that the public can easily ‘get involved’ is a whole other article.  However, my awareness of the consultation was raised and that, in my opinion, is an achievement that Adelaide City Council should be proud of.

In the laundrette – City of Charles Sturt

One rainy Sunday afternoon, I took my pile of wet washing to the local laundrette and whilst my undies were tumbling, I browsed through the magazines.  Curiosity made me pick up the City of Charles Sturt newsletter, Kaleidoscope

In the newsletter was an article about the Council budget laid out like a shopping list.  Having worked with the City of Charles Sturt in the past, I remember conversations about how the community just aren’t (in general) interested in reading through hefty budget documents, let alone providing feedback.  This was a great way to lay out the information and immediately grabbed my attention.

Again, I didn’t take action and provide any feedback but I was made aware of the local Council seeking my feedback.

Well done to the City of Charles Sturt!

In the mail – City of Onkaparinga

As a rate payer for the City of Onkaparinga I was interested to receive information on a current consultation on their Draft Annual Business Plan 2009/10.  I had every good intention of reading the summary document they’d sent and perhaps dropping them an email with some feedback.  This never eventuated though and I’m guessing the document ended up in the recycle bin!

Whilst I didn’t act on the request for feedback, I think that the City of Onkaparinga should still receive some recognition that they reached out to me and grabbed my attention.  Good work!

Via twitter – Sydney Metro & Bang The Table

Now with this one, I let my ‘community engagement practitioner’ hat accidentally slip on.  I follow Bang The Table on Twitter and was interested to read that they were conducting an online consultation with Sydney Metro.  As a former Sydney commuter, I was instantly interested and clicked through straight away.

Despite my quick response to the request for input into decision making, I actually didn’t end up making any comments because I didn’t really find anything relevant to my short time as a Sydney commuter but Bang The Table and Sydney Metro certainly win the prize for getting me closest to providing feedback!

So what have I learnt?

I’ve been impressed that local Governemt in particular seems to be really picking up on innovative ways to inform the community of current opportunities to get involved with decision making.  This is a very position step in the right direction.

However, the one consultation that got me closest to providing feedback was the one at the touch of a button.

So as a young(ish) woman, it would appear that I’m too busy going to the hairdressers, doing my laundry and generally living life to deal with paperwork!

However, if you capture my attention (preferably online) and make it relevant to my world… I’m all yours.

This thing called community engagement

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Community Engagement.  We all keep harping on about it.  A lot of us are supposed to be doing it.  But what exactly is it?

My definition of what I call ‘pure’ community engagement is that it is the process of involving the general public in decision-making that effects them.  For example, a local Council might request feedback from residents about their plans for a new skate park in the local area, or a Government department might set up a committee with members of the public on it to provide advice on reducing road traffic accidents at a particular black-spot.

The people who will be most affected by the decision to be made can often be the real experts on that particular topic!  This is the beauty of community engagement.

Believe it or not, there are right and wrong ways to go about involving the public in decision-making and this is where specialist community engagement practitioners can help!

However, it is important to remember that community engagement is not just about being consulted on something.  Community engagement embraces varying levels of involvement – from simply informing the general public about a decision that has been made, through to the community being empowered to make the final decision themselves.  For more detail, check out the International Association of Public Participation’s Public Participation Spectrum.

I get approached to do various work that gets called ‘community engagement’ and the term is sometimes used more loosely than the above definition.  Sometimes the term community engagement is used to talk more about the community simply taking an interest or becoming more active in a particular community or activity.

To climb, or not to climb – that is the question

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Having just returned from a fabulous trip to the beautiful red centre of Australia, the debate of whether to climb ‘the rock’ or not is at the forefront of my mind.

Before traveling I received very clear messages from all of my colleagues, friends and acquaintances that climbing Uluru was an absolute no no. I completely agreed and made the commitment to myself to respect the wishes of the traditional owners of the land.

I was shocked on arrival at Uluru to see that the clear request to not climb Uluru didn’t appear to have reached the average tourist. As little ant-like people held on to the chain on the steep slope up, my traveling buddies and I pondered on the ‘to climb or not to climb’ debate. One member of my group chose to climb and really enjoyed the experience. He knew that he had been asked not to climb but with the temptation of the adrenaline rush, seeing all the tourists marching up and down, and generally getting caught up in the moment, he made his choice and I respect that too.

But in the back of my mind the cogs were turning with my community engagement hat on. I had received an email just a week before going to Uluru from Reconciliation Australia as a member of their mailing list. The email was very well timed as it contained some great factual information about why people are asked not to climb Uluru. It also told me that there is a public consultation underway for the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Draft Management Plan 2009-2019. This document clearly states that

“For visitor safety, cultural, and environmental reasons the Director and the Board will work towards closure of the climb”

What a shame that I didn’t see any mention of this consultation anywhere in the park itself? Perhaps I missed something? Perhaps I was too busy being jo-public to notice any invitations for my input!

This has led me to a really interesting debate in my mind. Before I continue, without a doubt, my personal opinion is that the closure of the climb is a good thing. The climb is dangerous and goes against the wishes of the traditional owners of the land. But at the same time, wouldn’t one of the key stakeholders for this consultation be the tourists doing the climb? And if so, why wasn’t there some information about this consultation at the bottom of the climb?

I can’t help but wonder if on this particular occasion a group of key stakeholders are being kept in the quiet? Particularly as they are the group likely to oppose the proposal. It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened!

If you are going to visit our beautiful red centre, I can highly recommend the base walk! In the meantime, Kevin Rudd PM is yet to be persuaded but at least he was aware of the consultation!

Glitz and glamour in the world of community engagement?

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Over the last year of establishing my own consultancy I have been giving a lot of thought to my values, my objectives, and more importantly my mission. What is it that I want to achieve? What is my overall goal? What is the mission of Becky Hirst Consulting?

I’m still debating this in my mind but as time goes on I am becoming more and more aware that I have a real passion for finding ways to promote opportunities for the community to be involved in decision making – not just the actively involved community members – but the typically ‘silent majority’, the people in the street who aren’t perhaps actively ‘involved’ in decision making but who actually might have some really valuable contributions to make.

Part of my realization of this mission was driving through Unley, just south of Adelaide yesterday and seeing a fabulously huge banner across 4 lanes of traffic promoting their online community panel. Fab. A far cry from a tiny advert in the back of a newspaper inviting people to a public meeting on a cold dark night in the middle of nowhere…

I’d like to see this more and more. I’d like to think that in 5-10 years time members of the ‘general public’ will be well aware of easy, accessible ways for them to have their say in decision making or problem solving. I’d like to think that in 5-10 years decision makers are receptive and willing to provide transparent, easily accessible ways for the public to get involved.

Academics may disagree with me and would prefer me to take a more conservative, theoretical model of work but in my opinion I think the world of community engagement needs some glitz, glamour and razzmatazz! We need to be thinking big, bold, courageous, exciting, motivating, enticing… We need to make people WANT to be involved!

Better get to work.

Acronymns Anonymous (AA)

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The world as we know it is full of acronymns – and South Australia is no exception!

Just stumbled across a fantastic resource called The A-Z of Acronyms in South Australia (186kb) which was produced by Community Information Strategies Australia Inc (CISA) in 2008 to help people find their way through the maze of acronymns currently in use in the community and Government sectors in South Australia.

No sign of BHC in the listing just yet… it’s just a matter of time…