Adrienne Murphy, the Environment Officer from the Blue Mountains City Council talks about the lessons from one Council’s first steps into online engagement. Learnings that includes early experiments in engaging its local community online about the Council’s long-term management plans.
The Blue Mountains City Council is responsible for one of the largest municipal areas in the world. As an area completely surrounded by World Heritage-listed forest, it means that the environment and the relationship that the community has with it is embedded deeply within the Council’s psyche.
Adrienne Murphy spent 12 years as an Environmental/Sustainability Officer with the Blue Mountains City Council before becoming the Council’s Communications Officer two years ago.
She brought to the role a commitment to strengthen the Council’s already rigorous community engagement tactics and saw that the Bang the Table software packages might provide an opportunity to deliver on that.
“I thought that Bang the Table could provide relevant and current engagement services that would improve our community engagement strategies, allowing us to respond to the ways that people preferred to participate in consultation and decision making with Council.”
A year and a bit on from that decision, the Council has consulted their community online using the original Bang the Table forum for nine consultations and more recently, the new Engagement HQ for a proposed rate increase, draft Integrated (management) plans, community and cultural facilities, street tree management and graffiti management consultations.
Online engagement and public meetings
Their first online consultation was in 2009, when Blue Mountains City Council took their draft Management Plan 2009/10 to the community. Historically, annual Management Plans rarely draw vast numbers of community comments. However, when the Council posted their Plan online, it was nevertheless viewed by 150 community members; a comparatively far greater number than that attracted by the previous ‘drop in’ forums held across the LGA – in some cases drawing just the one.
“For any Council, the cost and resources of putting on forums are quite high,” states Adrienne.
This cost of hosting public forums is magnified in the Blue Mountains due to the geography of the local government area which is very linear. This necessitates that the same public forum is duplicated three times across the LGA to ensure that all members of the community have had their opportunity to view and discuss information relating to the project, proposal or issue.
“The traditional public forums cost the Council in expensive displays, hard copy print outs, electronic systems (i.e. laptops, projectors etc), senior staff time and the requirement that they also be held at various times throughout the week that suit different people’s needs,” Adrienne explains.
“Depending on the issue or project, we typically hold one public meeting during the day, replicate it on the weekend and then hold the same one again in the evening. In terms of public meetings alone, Bang the Table is already saving us quite a bit there.” Conducting forums and presenting information to the community is not the problem, it is that the same amount of work is done for each forum with an unknown audience – it could be one, five or five hundred residents attending these forums.
Of course, the Council is well aware that not all people will use the internet to engage on an issue and have no intention of substituting all community engagement methods for the one. It is important that all residents have access to community consultation and, therefore, online consultation is seen to complement their traditional approaches.
“Using Bang the Table has allowed Council to find a ‘best-fit’ for the different ways that residents are able to participate in community consultation and not be limited to public forums and engage higher numbers of our community,” she states.
“On-line forums increase the accessibility to community consultation for residents. As a working parent myself, I am a prime candidate for people that can’t or won’t get to a public meeting. It is more likely that I will find time to go online and give my opinion about a community issue later at night after the kids have gone to bed .”
Online engagement can help broaden community views
Adrienne’s online engagement experience with the Council has led her to consider how using online tools can allow a broader range of community members gain a deeper insight into an issue.
“If you host a community consultation online, where the information and community opinions are publicly available, it can help paint a clearer picture of how people feel about the issue,” she explains.
“While we at Council have traditionally had clear access to community opinion, or a sample of it, the online forums now broadcast that community opinion publicly. The community starts up conversations and discuss the issues between themselves in the forums.”
That visibility can also prove useful to Council.
“With community opinion now being displayed on-line, Council can better demonstrate how it came to make certain decisions based on community opinion and commentary,” she goes on to say.
“The diagnostics and reporting function of Bang the Table forums also indicate the number of people that have viewed the documents online and the number of people that have actually posted their opinion.”
Adrienne explains how the Council then uses those numbers to extrapolate a sense of community sentiment.
“We can see the number of unique visitors to the site and the numbers that are commenting. If the number of people that are viewing only, and not commenting, are far greater than the numbers that are commenting, we can be quite confident in surmising that the information we provided is sound and the issue is not generating criticism or comment. I believe it gives us a better picture of overall community opinion.”
Countering Community Cynicism
“Cynicism towards the Council is a fact of life and it is not a case that the more information you make available means less complaints. Using on-line engagement does not make councils immune from criticism about the extent or intent of consultation, however, there is no doubt that the Bang the Table products allow more people to have their say about more issues . It also increases the transparency of any debate as the information and the conversations are visible to all on-line participants, to Councillors and Council staff.”
Photo Credit: The Blue Mountains with Ruben by Hasitha Tudugalle