A thoughtful online and offline participatory budgeting strategy helped Port Macquarie-Hastings Council rekindle its community’s trust.
“We’ve never had a financial conversation like this before,” notes Communications Manager Lyndal Harper on Council’s “Budget Priorities” engagement strategy. “The community support we’ve had for it has been reflected in the comments arriving on our online forum; such as “Thanks for providing us with the opportunity to have our say” and “I’ve learned a lot.” It’s gratifying after such a challenging few years.”
While it’s been a steady, hard climb over the past three years, Lyndal feels that the Council’s renewed commitment to community engagement is having a positive effect.
In 2008, Port Macquarie-Hastings Council was dismissed after a full public enquiry found that the council had failed to consult adequately or control the costs related to a cultural and entertainment centre that ended up costing over $50million.
“The community lost faith in us,” reflects Lyndal. “But as an organisation we’ve learned a lot and the upshot is that we have now become an organisation that is genuinely committed to authentic community engagement processes.”
“It’s fair to say that it was a big leap forward to get Council sign off on online engagement. The public enquiry had unearthed such division within the community it was a challenge to get the organisation to say “we want to hear from you.”
But along with the new administration and management team, PMHC had introduced cultural change that presented new attitudes and a belief that it would do what it took to build back the trust that it had lost.
With this at front of mind, Council opened up their first online engagement forum 12 months ago. The “Port Macquarie Hastings Listening” site has since offered up regular opportunities for the community to have their say on topics like parking, dogs in public spaces, Councillor number revisions, management plans, tourist site reviews and their strategic plan.
By their sixth forum, the Councils combined forums had drawn over 5700 unique visitors. Such interest, Lyndal felt, qualified the move to present the community with an online participatory budgeting exercise that would work as part of a broader engagement strategy.
“We wanted to introduce the notion of online participation and engagement slowly,” Lyndal explains. “Port Macquarie has an older demographic and we wanted the community to feel wholly comfortable with the technology before introducing other concepts.”
While participatory budgeting is well recognised internationally, in Australia it is relatively unknown with PMHC being only the third Council in Australia to take up the initiative.
The first phase of the participatory budgeting process began using traditional face to face methods. Staff members attended a plethora of community meetings, workshop forum and the many informal meetings between.
“The demographic of our community meant that we could not limit our engagement methods to online methods alone,” says Lyndal. “But we had also had the experience of just 11 people in total turning up over three public meetings previously to discuss our corporate plan, so we knew that online engagement was important for reaching more people.”
The hard yakka paid off with Council engaging 1027community members in phase one, many of them participating in a process where community members literally voted by placed sticky dots beside the services they wanted to prioritise.
The information that fell out of these initial efforts went on to feed the content of phase two; the online budgeting process.
“Taking the broad information from phase one helped to ensure that the service options and messages we wanted to deliver would be on target and consistent with community opinion.”
“But one of the biggest challenges,” she goes on to say “was working out how to make sure that the community were aware of our online engagement processes.”
It helped that the Council had had the Budget Allocator and budget forum in their sights right from the outset. In doing so, the council recognised that promoting their online strategies via the EngagementHQ database would act as a powerful promotional tool for ongoing online conversations, including the participatory budgeting tool.
To strengthen their database numbers, Council strategically posted a number of discussions that they suspected would generate some impassioned community debate, particularly parking and public spaces.
“Where we could we promoted participatory budget tool online. It meant that people could simply click a link and land directly on the page,” Lyndal explains. “However, we also recognised that we would need to consider the needs of people who were not necessarily regular users of the internet but would still want to have their say online.”
The Port Macquarie Hastings Council created a comprehensive promotional strategy that sought to target as many community members as possible. It included:
- Sending out e-newsletters to the established EngagementHQ database
- E newsletters to the 240 strong community reference group membership
- Giving out bookmarks printed with the budgeting forum URL
- Writing articles for a host of community newsletters, including the business network
- Delivering a media campaign that included full page ads in the local paper, two editorials and television coverage
- Council also made terminals available in the head office and libraries where people could complete the budget allocator
And it worked.
A total of 159 budget scenarios were submitted to Budget Allocator over the duration of the project which ran from September 7 to September 24. A total of 457 unique visitors visited the site to read the council’s educational material and observe the community discussion.
“BudgetAllocator has been really positive,” Lyndal says. “Of course, there are always nervous moments from a Council perspective. You think, what if the community says they’re not comfortable with the way we spend anything!”
But in the fact the opposite was true with the Council pleasantly surprised to discover on reading the report, that the community on the whole, supported the proposed financial decisions. Further, the community also showed their general agreement on the expected 10% rate rise that council raised on the online tool.
“The data we’ve been able to collect online, supplemented by offline engagement methods and anecdotal data has allowed us to get a pretty clear picture of how our budgeting choices are impacting the community and what the community would actually like to see happen.”
“We got a lot of great feedback telling us how useful they felt the tool was. People said that they felt that they had a genuine chance to have their say.”
There were others that said that they wanted the opportunity to play an even larger role in the process and requested greater transparency in the discussions.
The challenge now for Port Macquarie-Hastings is to decide how best to use the information that has been presented to them by the community. “We’ve made some really positive steps into creating positive dialogue with the community, we now need to make the engagement process an entrenched part of how we do business and how we set our workload priorities moving forward.”
Port Macquarie-Hastings Council Community Forum: http://pmhclistening.com.au/
Port Macquarie-Hastings Budget Priorities Online Forum: http://pmhclistening.com.au/budgetpriorities