Council adopted the Community Engagement Strategy on July 7th 2009. The purpose of this strategy is “…to go beyond the minimum engagement requirements so we can strengthen the relationship with the community” (p3). It’s my opinion that Council failed to consult adequately for SAM.
Under the strategy, Council made a promise to the community that they will “be involved in the decisions that affect them” (p2). However, the SAM consultation process did not “engage with a wider cross section of the community, including groups which are harder to reach” (p2). ‘Community’ for this purpose, will be defined as per the definition stated on page 8 of the Community Engagement Strategy – “Our whole community: the people who live within the City of Greater Shepparton, including rural areas and rural towns in the municipality and those who wish to live, work, visit or invest in the Municipality”
On page 7, under the heading ‘OUR PROMISE’, Council resolved to inform, keep communities involved and up to date, consult, listen to and understand community views, involve collaboratively, work with community groups, organisations and stakeholders to plan, develop and manage projects, as well as empower the community.
This strategy was intended so the “final decision will be made by the community” and should be enacted when projects impact future developments/budgets, include 1-3 year projects such as transport/infrastructure projects, tourism projects community development projects or developments for town centres. As you can see, SAM ticks every box.
Page 3 under clause 2.3 outlines GSCC consultation principles: ‘Fair and Transparent’, ‘Honesty, integrity and Respect’, Open and Inclusive Process’ and Well Informed Effective Communication’. Reasons why GSCC failed to follow these principles are listed below:
· GS did not act on its “…commit[ment]…to go beyond the minimum engagement requirement so we can strengthen our relationship with the community” (p3). In fact, GSCC failed to table an anti-SAM document containing over 2000 objections
· Community engagement did not increase community participation, nor enable the community to work together on issues that matter to them (p4)
· As part of a fair and transparent process, GSCC was not accountable for monitoring, reviewing, evaluating or reporting in an impartial manner
· The consultation process used for SAM lacked genuine honesty, integrity and respect, as engagement was perceived as tokenistic and contrived
· The consultation process used for SAM was not open, inclusive and enabling, as evidenced by an overwhelming number of stakeholders who expressed surprise the project was going ahead.
· The interests and concerns of communities and stakeholders were not keenly sought, as evidenced by GSCC’s reluctance to address divergent opinions early
· Well informed and effective communication was lacking, as the community was not given enough time to respond to consultation. Even today, it is difficult to say stakeholders are “well informed” (P4)
· The standard of community consultation for SAM is low as participants did not represent a cross section of the community, nor were a wide range of communication methods engaged
· The benefits of a “shared vision”, “mutual understanding” and developing a “partnership relationship” with the broader community have not been met (p5)
· Rather than being proactive in consultation, GSCC has been reactive, ultimately resulting in the need to mitigate conflict and anger as it arises
On Page 5, Council has identified four levels of participation rated in order of engagement. These are: Inform, Connect, Involve/Collaborate and Empower. ‘Empowering’ the community was circumvented in favour of ‘informing’ the community about the outcome of a questionable consultant business case. Therefore, the consultation engagement process lost many opportunities. Some of these are:
· Gaining new perspectives and sources of information
· Improved quality of outcomes – practical and relevant
· Targeted to whole of community expectations
· Building a sense of joint purpose
· Finding sustainable solutions to barriers such as contaminated soil and flood plain restrictions
· Testing of assumptions to serve as a reality check
Most importantly, GSCC continues to be in breach of our own policy by failing to evaluate engagement (p15).
To sum up, being a major project for the City of Greater Shepparton, the SAM consultation process was totally inadequate. As GSCC failed to engage stakeholders in a meaningful and genuine way in the outset, no amount of counter-measure will stem negative opinions in the community.
Community negativity could potentially impact the ultimate success of this project, as much depends on shifting community attitudes and expectations, to enhance the positive reputation of the City of Shepparton.