The challenge of community engagement

24 November 2015 | Posted In: #127 Summer 2015/16, Community Engagement, Planning for People and Social Issues, | Author: Michael Darcy

The Spring 2015 issue of ISV outlined UrbanGrowth NSW’s commitment to best practice community engagement and set out some details of how it is going about it. In the spirit of engagement Michael Darcy tests some of those ideas against experience.

engageConsultation. Participation. Engagement. These contemporary buzzwords of urban life are littered throughout government policy and legislation, in academic books and journals, and even in the action plans of developers themselves. Everyone apparently agrees that to achieve the best development outcomes the people affected by urban change must be involved at some level in decisions. But since Sherry Arnstein published her ‘Ladder of Citizen Participation’ almost fifty years ago, we have known that true engagement is rare and that practice does not always live up to the rhetoric.

Firstly, full disclosure: The University where I work has just accepted funds from UrbanGrowth NSW (UGNSW) for several scholarships. One funded student will be conducting a two-year study of community engagement practices and methods designed to assist UGNSW in its best practice drive. You may see this as a conflict of interest on my part – and you might be correct – but for me it also suggests a very encouraging openness to learning, and to creating and testing new knowledge and methods of engagement. Having said that, the huge challenges of identifying and engaging stakeholders, then weighing and incorporating their needs and ideas, remain.

A couple of the strategies outlined by Abbie Jeffs in UrbanGrowth NSW: Participation a key to city transformation illustrate this. Abbie writes about how honesty can counter ‘negative community attitudes to development’ and ‘low trust in the planning system’. In Sydney such attitudes are historically well justified and informed locals are acutely aware of the immense political and economic pressure on UrbanGrowth to deliver financial returns on the globalisation of the city. It is certainly true that clarity about ‘how engagement works with decision-making and what opportunities there are to influence outcomes’ is an essential element of building trust with the community – but we should also acknowledge that trust is not always going to be the most productive attitude for residents, and that a strong dose of continuing cynicism is a good thing in community engagement.

Representativeness is frequently cited as the biggest challenge for engagement processes – how to get beyond the ‘usual suspects?’ UrbanGrowth’s traditional public invitations to participate are to be supplemented by panels of residents constructed to be ‘broadly representative of the wider community’. Panel members are individuals selected to represent a category or class of residents rather than existing local organisations, while panels are designed to provide continuous feedback over an extended period. The first question to be asked about this practice is ‘who decides which classes or groups of residents will be represented?’ and if panellists don’t have strong networks behind them, how can they effectively influence the agenda?

Research and experience also highlights the danger in this model of panellists being co-opted (the Stockholm Syndrome) or, perhaps worse, of the perception of this happening amongst the wider community – thus damaging the credibility of the whole process. Behind this is the deeper question of whether such a potentially flawed version of representativeness should be preferred over deeply networked relationships with self-identified constituencies, each with their own accountability practices.

The aim to be inclusive, to broaden the scope and scale of participation, is laudable and necessary, especially given the scale and likely impact of projects like The Bays. But the language of proponents of development inevitably assumes consensus politics – until it doesn’t. Abbie Jeffs concedes that in the end there are competing and conflicting stakeholder interests, and hopes that a robust engagement process will see all parties accept the outcome.

Unfortunately, this is not how our planning system always works – more often than not, those with a financial stake, and the economic means to do it, escalate unfavourable decisions to the courts or through political networks in endless efforts to get what they want. And frequently forces and events outside the planning system, and indeed outside the city, have a much greater influence on what finally happens than even these processes.

Ultimately I think it is possible for UrbanGrowth to effectively engage community stakeholders and even in some instances UG and local communities will be allies or partners, but the biggest challenge for community engagement strategies is to imbue them with some authority, and to make the outcomes stick.

Associate Professor Michael Darcy, is an inner Sydney resident, researcher and is Director of the Urban Research Program at the University of Western Sydney.