Rates consultations are often a challenging and complex process. Katie Toohey, Bang the Table’s Australian-based Engagement Manager, spoke with local government clients across Australia and New Zealand to uncover their tips on how to navigate engagement for a smoother consultation.
In Australia and New Zealand, local governments charge rates for the provision of services and amenities. Legislation provides standardized rates with additional provisions to levy special rates or increase rates. Unsurprisingly, an increase in rates is often met with hostility and resistance.
But regardless of the unpopularity of raising rates, local governments are often required to raise rates permanently, or temporarily, in order to pay for public facilities, services, and amenities. They are also required to seek feedback and input from their ratepayers and the wider community, with a view to being able to show a mandate to increase rates.
There are broadly three kinds of consultations in this space:
- Special Rate Variation/increase to rates
- Rate harmonization post amalgamation of councils
- General consultation about rates – how they are used, rating schedules, structures, land value changes, reduction or freeze on rates increases due to hardship (e.g. COVID-19)
In most jurisdictions, community consultation is a legislated component of applying to increase rates. A recent report by the New South Wales Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) states: “Community engagement is a critical element of the [special variation] process as it aims to ensure councils’ accountability to their constituents.”
No one wants to pay more for their rates but they all want maintained or improved public facilities, services, and amenities! Robust engagement helps communities clearly understand the trade-offs of not implementing increases, and promotes understanding of the benefits of improving a rate increase.
To get approval for a rate rise you must demonstrate that you have consulted widely and there is a mandate from the community to increase rates. You are unlikely to get approval for an increase in rates alone from the regulating body or state local government association, rather you may need to show you have community support to maintain or increase service levels and amenities with an acceptance that this may mean increased rates.
Advice from our clients who have done this before is to be aware that you may receive significant community and stakeholder push-back. Be prepared with how you will address scare-campaigns, community outrage, and concern. Be transparent and open about your consultation purpose, the decision-making process, and what your parameters are for making a final decision.
Many of your stakeholders won’t understand how you analyze the data to make a decision, so you want to provide a simple explanation at the start, so they don’t feel misled at the end. For example, if your council is making a decision based on stakeholder feedback that reduction of service is unacceptable, it’s helpful to explain to stakeholders that this metric will take precedence over low stakeholder support for rate rises.
One of Bang the Table’s clients explains that while the community was deeply invested and interested early on, communication fatigue had set in by the end of the process, leaving the community disconnected.
Top tip: Engage on related projects simultaneously to reduce consultation fatigue. Consider engaging on your community strategic plan or long-term community plan, integrated planning and reporting framework (IP&R, NSW), or operational plans and budgets concurrently. This way you can better demonstrate the need for rates assessment, and from a practical perspective, have surveys and site documents in common, link projects through the related projects widget, and double down on your communications and engagement efforts without exhausting your communities.
Make sure you have a clear message and a simplified process to engage with your community and stakeholders. Try to avoid multiple rounds of consultation on similar topics. Rather focus on fewer stages of consultation that are broad enough to cover your key engagement areas and take your participants on a clear and focused engagement journey.
Great ways to ensure you are communicating clearly is by using your learning tools (widgets) to inform your participants:
- The Lifecycle Widget is an excellent way to show stages of consultation and decision-making milestones
- Use of the Photo and Video galleries to showcase rich media explaining and breaking down key concepts in an easy-to-understand way
- Developing a comprehensive list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) to help answer common questions
Keep it Simple
It is a challenge to explain the costings and statistics in an easy to understand way for the wider community. You might need to get creative to show the impact of different percentage increases, cumulative increases, and trade-offs in service levels. Making complex financial processes simply understood allows for informed community decision making.
Sutherland Shire Council used infographics to communicate clearly what the challenges were:
A specialized budgeting tool like Balancing Act can greatly assist with this. Wellington City Council used this tool to engage on their annual budget, asking residents and ratepayers to balance the budget by shifting cost items around or increasing rates. This hands-on approach makes it easier for stakeholders to understand competing budget priorities and the reality of trade-offs.
Use a Cross Section of Tools and Methods
You will need to reach a wide audience for a successful rates consultation. By not limiting your engagement to one method, you can increase your reach and community audience. Online engagement often reaches harder-to-access communities and gives space to quieter participants who might not feel comfortable in a community meeting.
With COVID-19 restricting the opportunity for traditional face-to-face engagement, you may have a need to move your meetings online. You can find out more about running online meetings here.
The use of innovative engagement tools, like integrated SMS, can add significant involvement and engagement to your consultation. There are also a variety of ways you can integrate SMS into your engagement, including SMS Polls and adding SMS into the feedback loop. Yankalilla Council used a combination of online meetings, integrated SMS, and a discussion Forum tool to engage with their community on their Annual Business Plan.
Bang the Table clients often use a range of traditional and online tools and methods to engage, including the use of a branded EngagementHQ project page that is cross-linked to the corporate website. Advice on the preferred engagement tools includes:
- Surveys to capture detailed responses and ensure a thorough review,
- The News Feed to keep stakeholders up to date with developments, information, and closing the loop,
- A Questions tool so you can respond to community concern,
- Integrated budgeting tools,
- Integrated SMS engagement,
- A poll for confirmation of general sentiment; and,
- A rich array of informational widgets.
Bring together your face-to-face engagement – such as reference committees, town-hall meetings, community pop-ups, and hard copy surveys – with your online engagement. This could include hosting webinars or web-meetings that link to your online engagement page, manually entering in hardcopy and email responses into your online tools, or setting up virtual pop-in sessions on social media.
Internal Buy-in and Cooperation
Central to getting your engagement right is ensuring that your internal stakeholders are on board, aware, and engaged with the consultation. With a rates consultation, there are a lot of moving parts and multiple internal organizational teams involved. Having a centralized communication and engagement strategy will help to ensure you have your documentation approved, your messaging clear, and all the key consultation stages accounted for.
You will also need to clearly identify who your key decision-makers are: who is taking the lead on the process, who is responsible for what, and by what deadline? This is important to sort out early on to ensure a smooth process. You also need to know what is your budget for the consultation process and how will the internal teams share the financial and practical requirements of engagement?
To be successful you’ll need to develop collaborative relationships, making it an excellent time to run an EngagementHQ 101 training session with your internal stakeholders. Better yet, look at getting in our talented Practice Leads to run a masterclass for the team on best practice digital engagement methods.
Get the Tone Right
Once you have your engagement planned, the stakeholders ready, and the tools built out, you will need to communicate the process with your community.
Top tips from clients include communicating broadly and loudly about rates-funded projects and the associated spending generating positive outcomes. Often the rates increase becomes the focus rather than the increase in services, amenities, and infrastructure.
Ensure that you are sensitive about how you communicate big spending items, remembering that people may feel hostile towards a perceived ‘waste of money’ or focused spending only in cities or the CBD, and the perception that regional areas ‘missed out’.
Your News Feed tool really comes into its own here, as you can use it to communicate the good, the bad, and the challenging, as well as ensuring you close the loop with your community.
Thank you to these Councils for their time, energy, and commitment to best practice engagement who formed the basis of this article: