Updated: Oct 1, 2021
On 29 June 2021 the ACT Minister for Planning Mick Gentleman issued a media release entitled “Fresh start for planning system”. In this release, Gentleman claimed a need to improve the ACT planning system as both community and business are disillusioned with present arrangements. He goes on to suggest a community consultation process will occur on this matter—but only within a tight framework determined by the government. https://www.cmtedd.act.gov.au/open_government/inform/act_government_media_releases/gentleman/2021/fresh-start-for-planning-system
If we are to understand what the government is doing when it undertakes such limited forms of consultation, we must ask what in general community consultation is, why it is undertaken and how much confidence we may have in it.
After initial strong interest in the 1960s, the desire to consult with the community has re-emerged over the last three decades. In part, this is because governments’ claim that it enables more effective delivery of services in line with community expectations and requirements. In part, too, it is because governments are seeking to maintain or recover trust in government, which is at an all-time low. (This has been confirmed by Sarah Cameron and Ian McAllister of the ANU, in their study of the 2019 Australian federal election, released in December 2019.)
Reflecting this resurgence, much research has been undertaken on the general idea of community engagement and consultation. Yet even a cursory examination of this research reveals a lack of appreciation of the political foundations upon which these processes rest.
From at least 1945 until around 1975 direct government intervention in the economy was considered a principal mechanism for the provision of public goods. From 1975 onwards this notion of governance was displaced all around the world by so-called neoliberalism, first by Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Ronald Reagan in the USA and by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in Australia.
So what is the neoliberal conception of how governments should deliver public goods?
According to neoliberalism competition is a defining characteristic of human relations. In particular, neoliberalism maintains that the delivery of public goods, or at least most public goods—defence is an exception—is best achieved through the ‘market’. The proper role of government is thus service provision not through direct intervention but through so structuring competition in the marketplace that market actors, in realising their private interest, also realise the public interest, i.e., serve the public good.
Public institutions, because they are no longer expected to intervene directly, are thus downsized or at least remodelled (or both) so as to play their new role of facilitating the realisation of public goods through the market. In short, when downsizing occurs, it does so not just because government administration of the old kind has become redundant but because government administration has acquired a new function: soliciting the right private interests to promote in the name of the public good. Consequently, public service not only loses capacity, status and role, it also acquires new ones.
This shift in the conception of how the government relates to the economy brings with it a corresponding shift in the notion of the citizen. Citizens are redefined as consumers—as clients, in contemporary management jargon—whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. Similarly, a shift is induced in the nature of the regulations, in particular, the planning instruments, which structure the lives and activities of citizens.
If ‘the market’ delivers benefits more efficiently than direct government provision, then too much regulation of ‘the market’ does not protect but actually inhibits service delivery. Better, then, to go lightly: simply specify the public goods which ‘the market’ is to deliver, then structure the latter in such a way that market actors deliver these outcomes precisely through realising their private interests. As far as planning is concerned this means that one must shift from traditional regulation-based planning (rules-based planning) to so-called outcomes-based planning. Precisely the shift Gentleman means when he speaks of making a fresh start, indeed of “wiping the slate clean.”
Thus the shift to a neoliberal conception of how government relates to the economy has led to a corresponding shift in the conception of how government relates to the community. In many Western societies, those governing have long felt some need, however weak, to explain and justify what they are doing to the governed. This relatively long-standing sensitivity is certainly part of the explanation for the recent rise and proliferation of community consultation processes. But it is only part of the story because this rise and proliferation has deeper roots: the neoliberal conception makes it all the more necessary for those governments that are sensitive to what those affected by its actions think, to determine and deal with what they think. Under the neoliberal conception of how government relates to the economy, public institutions have a reduced capacity to intervene directly but this does necessarily mean simply or solely a reduction in the role or function of government administration. Rather, government administration acquires a new function (and thus possibly also a new complexity): that of soliciting the right private interests to promote in the name of the public good.
So, the public service is not simply reduced in capacity, status and role: rather, it acquires new capacity, status and role based on a new and different conception of what it accomplishes. In the neoliberal view, for governments sensitive to what the community thinks, the task of the public service no longer includes simply mediating between what the government regards as the public good and what individuals within the community regard as this good. The task now becomes that of mediating between what individuals in the community think and the interests of those market actors whose private interest it has identified as the ones it needs to serve in order to realise what government takes to be the public good. The neoliberal conception of governance thus makes it legitimate for the government and its bureaucracy, when out of sensitivity to community expectations and sentiments it enters into consultation processes, to do so as de facto representatives of certain private interests—namely those interests it deems to be the ones it can best put in service of the public good.
Hence governments subject to such sensitivity, as they are in many Western societies, not only embark on consultation they both have all the more reason for doing so and for doing so in a particular way. Not only do they embark all the more in community consultation they do so as brokers or mediators between the community and typically very powerful market actors. And they are doing so not as brokers or mediators who are impartial but as brokers or mediators who have already taken sides. For this complex set of reasons community consultation exercises have both proliferated in recent times and been perceived by the community as ‘rigged’. In governments already sensitive to community expectations and desire, the neoliberal model of governance not only promotes consultation it also renders it inherently conflicted.
Understandably, those in government do not want this character of government and of public service, either in general or as it occurs specifically within consultation processes, to be made explicit. This explains the widely acknowledged loss of transparency in the way contemporary government operates and, correspondingly, the greater concern about and louder calls for transparency, as shown by many recent examples in NSW, at the Commonwealth government level and in the ACT. Wherever greater accountability is demanded such demands include; calls for caps on political donations, improved controls over political lobbying, ever stricter codes of conduct for parliamentarians, better protection for whistle-blowers, and the establishment of strong anti-corruption and integrity agencies.
Within the ACT there is formal commitment to both transparency and accountability. According to its own website the ACT Government commits itself to:
“Transparency—in process and information
Participation—by citizens in the governing process
Public collaboration in finding solutions to problems and participation in the improved well-being of the community
“For the ACT Government, being an open government means we value collaboration with each other and the community. The Open Government initiatives, including this website, enhance democracy and place the community at the centre of the governance process.”
But just how does transparency, participation and collaboration ostensibly happen in the ACT? Does the government meet its professed aims? A useful measure is provided by research on the techniques used by the public sector when seeking community participation and/or collaboration. Such research typically takes, in one way or another, the form of a taxonomy whereby the techniques one might employ when engaged in community consultation, some more rigid others more fluid, are ordered according to how much power they give to community participants. At the top of such lists stands participation as collaboration, which includes face-to-face discussion directed towards having participants learn from one another over a potentially unspecified length of time—perhaps “as long as it takes”, such that at the end all may comment knowledgeably on the subject at hand.
Obviously, this is a very idealistic conception of participation and collaboration, one which might never be fully implemented in the real world—certainly not without genuine commitment to achieving a collaborative form of government with the local community. The point is, however, that the ACT Government policy on community consultation does not state this conception, not even as an ideal to be approximated to. Rather, the ACT Government utilises flashy but shallow digital consultation methods, such as online surveys or limited e-packaged description blocks. In this regard, the ‘Have YourSay’ section on the ACT Government website reveals more than it intends: the section has been constructed so as to offer only limited opportunity to engage meaningfully with issues and there is considerable constraint on back-and-forth exchange, hence real learning. In effect, the ‘Have YourSay’ website avoids allowing the community to have a say in any way other than that already envisaged by its creators, hence by their client, the ACT Government.
This is not simply because our bureaucrats find challenge to their decision-making role both inconvenient and irritating. A deeper explanation lies in the very nature of the neoliberal conception of government: under it, governance is inherently conflicted. That is, the government is not simply concerned to ensure that its understanding of the public good and how to realise it and that of the community are brought into alignment since it is now also a representative of the private interests it has already selected to promote in order to realise the public good. From the outset, then, these private interests have a foot in the door. And this foot will be all the larger the more constraints there are on public expenditure, which results in reduced staff and skills.
In consequence, in current practice, the issues upon which consultation is truly needed can neither be fully identified nor properly explained in a timely manner, nor is there any real exchange and learning amongst participants. Nor is this due simply to insufficient public expenditure. It is because of the very way governance works in the neoliberal environment. No wonder, then, that the ACT Government opts for online ‘participation’ and ‘collaboration’, in which real issues are neither collaboratively identified and distinguished from erroneous or irrelevant ones nor properly explained! It is a fundamentally passive tool unlikely to reach those in the community often under-represented in such processes and who are often dismissed as either too apathetic or insufficiently able to deal with the issues.
So how might things be done better?
This is acknowledged as a hard question and so no ready or complete answer is given here. Nonetheless, key phrases in the critique given above of current government consultation practices provide some guidance: “opportunity to engage meaningfully with issues”, “back-and-forth exchange, hence real learning” and in particular “face-to-face discussion, directed towards having participants learn from one another over a potentially unspecified length of time.” These phrases intimate that community consultation should be a process undertaken more or less from the get-go, an ongoing process in which both parties, government and the community, are engaged in learning so as collectively to develop policy.
Consultation should not be just something tacked on at the end of policy development where it can only provide opportunity for tinkering around the edges and, perhaps more importantly, where it can only take on board the mere opinions of those interested enough to come along on the day. However, for this to be even remotely possible there needs to be ongoing interaction between government and the community, made possible by an institutional structure which does not simply relay opinions back and forth between government and individuals in the community but provides opportunities for all parties to learn more about the issues and the possible means for addressing them. In other words it would enable a genuine back-and-forth exchange, not just of opinions but also of ideas, in a joint process of policy development. Such back-and-forth exchange is learning on the part of government, hence is part of how it does its job properly. It is thus part of government itself.
A real possibility for the development of such an institutional structure was created, at least with respect to local planning, in the late 1990s, when the ACT government introduced a system of LAPACs (Local Advisory Planning Committees). This kind of structure could be extended to a wider suite of issues beyond those of local planning. Moreover, the tasks of such a structure could be widened beyond that of giving advice on concrete proposals to include a research and educational component so as to create within the community an ongoing capacity for developing and elaborating, in relative independence of government and its bureaucracy, alternative policy directions and strategies. An example for the kind of thing envisaged here is provided by Zürich’s “People’s Initiative for the Promotion of Public Transport”: a process of debate and joint policy development between citizens and city hall which took place there during the 1970s and 80s and has led to Zürich’s having arguably the best public transport system in the world.
But before anything along these lines could become possible, it would be essential to remove one big obstacle to them, an obstacle which, more than anything else, explains why governments such as the ACT Government would be hostile to moving from gratuitous “end-of-pipe” community consultation to genuinely participatory policy development. This is precisely the neoliberal conception of governance. This conception of the role of government makes of the latter a representative of the private interests it has decided, or, more likely, it has no choice but to promote (since there are no other market actors available). Not only this: it involves a reduction of its own capacity for policy development and for intervention in order to implement policy. In other words, it leads to a downsizing of the public service, with crippling effects on this latter’s ability to act autonomously. Indeed, even more than this, the neoliberal conception involves a retooling of the public service: this latter comes to see its task simply in identifying appropriate private interests and working with them in order to secure the policy goals of the government it works for. Basically, it comes to see its role as developing the right business partnerships and collaborating as a good business partner. From this perspective, community input is potentially disruptive. The neoliberal conception creates a bureaucracy with neither the time nor any great desire to integrate ordinary citizens into its processes of policy development.
So what to do about this situation here and now? For the ACT citizen, we suggest:
It is important to be aware of the nature of government consultation.
It is important to ask your local member about this matter and get to the detail of how this person sees the system functioning.
Hold a forum of friends, networks and neighbours to discuss this matter—using an example that directly affects your community by way of explanation.
Write to the local media regarding community consultation around issues of concern. a. Within available institutions offering such an opportunity b. at Community Councils; and c. within other groups and organisations.
Use social media to highlight the way citizens are being hoodwinked by inappropriate community consultation process.
Finally tell CPAG what you know and think about the ACT Government’s processes of community consultation on planning via our website.
For CPAG itself there are quite a few things to be done about the issues raised in this discussion paper. They include:
Drawing attention to the Legislative Assembly of the underlying premises elicited in this note, and especially the Greens.
Putting a request to the Legislative assembly that the Open Government policy of the ACT Government be reviewed by looking in detail at how community consultations are conducted against best practice criteria, showing how non-transparent such processes really are, reviewing how specific operational issues are handled, as well as how the Policy goals of Open Government are verified, including public servants position statements, KPI’s and budget allocations.
Using the Planning Review and Reform process outlined by Gentleman as a specific example for investigation.
Initiating a serious debate within the wider community around this issue: Within available institutions offering such an opportunity
Undertaking its own research and publicising both this and other research on its website.
All in all, the challenge is to develop a very different view of governance, hence government, than the one we now see practised under neoliberal influence