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Hornsby Council: consulting online about urban consolidation

Tamara Shardlow

Tamara Shardlow

Tamara is a writer, editor, artist and engagement specialist. She is also former member of the Bang the Table team.

They say a man’s home is his castle. So when Hornsby Council made the decision to try consulting online about urban consolidation we expected some serious community feedback.

attracted a large amount of visitors and opinions when it consulted its community online for Stage 1 and Stage 2 of its Housing Strategy.  Tamara Shardlow spoke to the Council’s Corporate Manager and Town Planner to find out more.

Hornsby is one of the largest shires in Australia.  It boasts a surprising mix of urban, river and rural communities that stretch from the commercial hum of Epping through to the remote tranquility of Brooklyn and Milson’s Passage.

TS:          Why did you choose to engage online?

Council: “We knew from 2006 Census information that Hornsby Shire was a computer literate community.  We have 48,000 households in our area; 30,000 of which are connected to the internet.  This, combined with the fact that we have such a diverse mix of communities in our Council area, meant that it made sense to use online forums.”

“Of course, engaging such a diverse mix of communities will always prove to be a challenge – along with the fact that people move to isolated areas precisely because it is hard to contact them – but we do the best to make sure they can have a say if and when they want to.  To date, I think it’s been successful.”

TS:          Do you think that there are certain issues that lend themselves better to online forums than others?

Council: “It can be difficult to tell really.  But I think overall that the subjects and issues work better if they have a very local interest and are related to people’s personal lives.  It nearly always comes down to asking ourselves the question; “what’s in it for our community, does it impact on people’s day-to-day lives, what do they get out of it?”

TS:           And you think that a Housing Strategy can fall into this category?

Council: “Yes, I do.  Housing is very close to people’s hearts, it affects their homes.  So of course, it’s very important to each and every one of our residents.  Some of the comments on the forum were pretty heated and I think that’s because people can see that the forum is a safe place where they can get feelings off their chests.  It allowed people to express themselves without the need to be in a face to face confrontation.”

TS:          What were some of the major benefits of engaging online?

Council: “I guess that one of the major benefits is that online forums like Bang the Table gave an equal voice to all members of the community – it doesn’t hand control to the “noisy” minority voice that can often tend to dominate the conversation.  While we can get statistics on people’s views through surveys and the Census, Bang the Table gives the Council insights into our community’s ideas, the way that they think and feel on a subject – we find it’s a great way to get in touch with the “BBQ conversation.”

“We also found that the independent moderation worked very well for us.  Having an independent moderator – someone who kept an eye on the forum – allowed Council to act purely as an observer.  We made the decision to leave the forum as a community space – a place where people can speak to each other without Council interference.”

“Leading on from that, I’d have to say that one of the most satisfying aspects is to see that a large percentage of users are actually going online to have their say at around 9am till 5pm on a weekday.  It’s certainly never a time when we could organise a public meeting.  I can see quite clearly that it’s been very valuable in being able to broaden our reach in the community.”

TS:          Engaging a community on something as large as Housing Strategy takes some work.  Firstly, how did you provide the information online?

Council: “I think that one of the keys to the online success was the fact that the Council broke up the Housing Strategy and content into the various different precincts; 25 in all.  Doing this meant that a community member didn’t need to scroll through the whole document to get to the information that was pertinent to them and their suburb.”

TS:           Did you put much thought into the writing of the Strategy’s text?  I’ve read some planning reports and they’re not exactly “user friendly.”

Council: “We knew how important it was to “take off the planner’s hat” and get away from the technical jargon when putting together the forum’s content.    We wanted to make it very user friendly and we worked together with the Council’s Strategy team and Community Relations team.  They screened the content a second time to make sure that the language of the content was clear and straight forward.”

TS:          How did you promote the Housing Strategy?

Council: “We made sure that all of the material which promoted the Housing Strategy  also promoted the link to the online forum.”

Listed below are some of the activities that the Council undertook to promote the Housing Strategy:

  • Sent out a letter with an accompanying CD that had all information on the Housing Strategy
  • Promoted the engagement with a front page article in the Council newsletter
  • Held Community drop-in sessions – 4 by day and 3 by night x 3 hours each.  All had town planners on hand to answer community questions.
  • Took out newspaper advertising
  • Held briefing sessions for journalists
  • Created a specific brochure
  • Developed a Housing Strategy page on the Council’s website

TS:    Did you find that there was an overlap in face to face and online engagement tactics?

Council: “Yes we did actually.  We found that the online forums worked really well for us in terms of being able to identify hot topics and issues online initially that we could then address in our face-to-face drop in sessions.”

Photo credit: Hornsby TAFE

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23 July 2010
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