Improving community engagement

South Australian Councils are looking to an international framework to help improve community engagement. South Australia’s Local Government Association (LGASA), with assistance from the State Government, has produced a new handbook for Councils to plan more effective community engagement.

LGASA President, Mayor Joy Baluch, said Councils were undertaking consultation on a regular basis, but sometimes hit snags or found it difficult to hear majority views above the activity of vocal minorities.

Mayor Baluch said the handbook,launched in March, aims to help Councils to take a planned approach, and to employ consultation techniques appropriate for their purposes.

It follows a 2007 Showcase publication of leading practice examples in South Australian Councils.

South Australian Minister for State/Local Government Relations, Jennifer Rankine, said effective consultation is a key ingredient to good decision making.

“Councils manage a billion dollars of programs each year in South Australia and $11 billion of community infrastructure,” she said. “Like other governments, they will do that more effectively if communities understand their challenges and provide input into plans and decisions.”

Mayor Baluch said the handbook incorporates a framework developed by the International Association of Public Participation.

“We are increasingly looking to world’s best practice models for our inspiration,” she said. “Councils are required to consult on their longterm plans, on their annual programs and budgets and on a range of other activities such as helping State Government to set zoning rules. Sometimes Councils decide to hold a public meeting before they have thought through the issues and considered how best to engage with the community. Public meetings are not always the best way and other techniques such as surveys, panels and focus groups are often more appealing to the local community.

“We are finding that younger people don’t really like meetings but are happy to respond using mobile phones or the internet. The keys are to have a planned approach and to apply the right techniques to the right circumstances. We think that common definitions and frameworks will help Councils to learn from each other.”

The handbook is available at www.lga.sa.gov.au/goto/engage