Community Planning is an important but relatively recent undertaking for many local governments in Victoria. Developing a Community Plan that is reflective of community issues and aspirations involves a process of genuine engagement with the community in order to gain knowledge and seek feedback.
In 2008, the Shire of Yarra Ranges embarked upon its third review of its Vision 2020 Community Plan first developed in 1999. The review of the Plan involved two community consultation stages. In stage one, Council gathered feedback on the issues facing the community and identified a number of key priority areas. Stage two involved presenting these major priority areas at a two-day Community Forum for further deliberation and feedback in order to finalise the Plan.
Kimbra White and Twyfords Consulting were appointed by the Shire to work with Council staff and a Community Reference Group (the forum planning team) to deliver the second stage of the review process.
In order to ensure that the consultation process was genuinely participatory, the project required employing recruitment methods that would attract participants who were representative of the demographic diversity of the municipality. However, recruiting a broad sample of people who are willing to give up their time, to provide feedback on long term planning issues that they may not perceive to be immediately relevant to their lives, can be difficult.
In order to develop a Community Plan that reflected good community consultation practices, it was also important to ensure that the context in which feedback was received at the Forum led to informed and considered reflections from participants. This required considering an appropriate structure for the Forum that would achieve this.
The Forum planning team developed a recruitment strategy and structure for the Forum that ensured that a representational, cross section of the community attended. It was decided that the Forum would comprise one-third of people recruited from representatives of community groups; one third being anyone who self nominated to attend (from advertisements were placed in the local newspaper); and the final third were randomly selected by a market research company to match the demographics of the shire. This resulted in 87 people attending the two-day forum.
In order that the Forum was able to generate rich discussion (to encourage deliberation) it was decided to structure the Forum over two meetings, held a week apart. This provided participants with a week to reflect upon the information they received (via presentations and an information booklet), and the ideas discussed in the first session, before attending the final meeting.
A number of presentations were made at the first meeting on important issues relating to the key priority areas. Each presentation was followed by time for participants to clarify issues and ask questions. All participants were then given a week to reflect upon the ideas discussed, before returning to the final session for small group discussions around the key priority areas.
A children’s theatre group also attended the first meeting to work with local primary school children. The group helped the children to develop a performance about what they did and didn’t like about living in the Shire.
In addition to co-facilitating the Community Forum, Kimbra White was also appointed by Council to chair the Community Reference Group that was providing advice on the Community Forum.
The Community Forum was a success in providing Council with valuable input into the Community Plan. All feedback was reviewed and incorporated into the final document.
The choice of random sampling as a recruitment method played a key role in ensuring that representation at the two-day Forum was demographically diverse. Many participants recruited by telephone said they felt honoured to be invited to contribute to the future planning of their Shire. The children’s performance also enabled a crucial (and often neglected) part of the population to be represented and to make a powerful contribution to the future planning of the shire by speaking directly to the adult community.
By holding the Forum over two days and ensuring that people had an understanding of the issues being discussed, participants were able to provide informed and considered input on the key priority areas. There was also a noteworthy absence of “grandstanding” or conflict at the Forum.
The Shire of Yarra Ranges Vision 2020 Community Plan can be viewed here.