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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…

My sentiments entirely!

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I often feel frustrated at so called ‘community consultations’ that are advertised in the smallest print possible at the back of the newspaper (where I wonder if anyone actually reads?).

Not only am I generally frustrated at the size, style and location of the advertisement but in general they are advertising something that is unappealing to the majority of the population… a public meeting! Yuk.

We need to be thinking creatively about involving the community in decision making and a public meeting is certainly not that! We need to be putting ourselves in the shoes of the community we are targeting and questioning whether we would want to attend a meeting in a community hall on a Friday evening, to sit in rows and be talked at? I certainly wouldn’t.

Mr Collins of Lobethal wrote into the local paper yesterday echoing my thoughts entirely. Reflecting on a recent ‘consultation’ he had been involved with as a member of the public he wrote “That sort of activity certainly does not constitute consultation. [Consultation] requires acknowledgement and considered response by government to legitimate public concerns and/or suggestions in a forum held in a time and place that do not restrict attendance”. Nicely put Mr Collins.

And of course we must not forget that consultation is just one level of public participation. Part of me wonders whether there is any hope of collaborating with the community on decision making if we can’t get the straight forward consultation bit right?

Rant over.

Got youth on your side?

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It was great to read the Out of the mouths of babes article on The Australian website earlier this week.

It’s often hard enough to convince decision makers of the benefits of consumer input into their decisions, let alone the value a bunch of 12-18 year olds can bring to the process!

Youth Advisory Committees are popping up everywhere these days and I’m a real fan. I’m often inspired when I come across young people involved in influencing decision makers and how they have a profound ability to articulate the needs of young people in a way that I couldn’t do if I tried!

For information on Youth Advisory Councils within South Australia, including what they are and the funding available to support them, visit the Office for Youth website.

And for those of us no longer in the ‘youth’ category…

“Youth is something very new: twenty years ago no one mentioned it.”
Coco Chanel

Australia’s first Citizens’ Parliament

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Throughout October and November, 150 citizens from all Australian federal electorates have been taking part in a series of unique events – regional meetings that lead up to Australia’s first Citizens’ Parliament at Old Parliament House from February 6 to 9 next year.

The regional meetings, together with online meetings and the February Citizens’ Parliament event are aimed at making democracy more accessible to Australians beyond the election cycle.

Regional meetings are being held around Australia including Canberra, Newcastle, Melbourne, Coffs Harbour, Fremantle, Adelaide, Brisbane and Hobart with the final meeting being held in Sydney on November 8 and 9. The day long meetings are being held to encourage participants to think about the ideas they have about the question: How can Australia’s political system be strengthened to serve us better?

People are considering the strengths of our governing institutions, responding to issues such as the limitations imposed by the election cycle and the overlapping layers of government.

Overall, more than 2500 people registered as prospective participants in the Citizens’ Parliament and associated activities. Following the regional meetings, all registered participants can contribute to an online deliberation about the question in the lead-up to the February event. Their final recommendations will be presented to the Prime Minister and all Members of Parliament.

The Citizens’ Parliament is funded by an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant in conjunction with the newDemocracy Foundation.

For further information, visit http://citizensparliament.org.au/