Groundwork for citizen involvement

Let’s think about a neighbourhood-wide space-change project. The key thing in making participatory / deliberative planning work, as far as I can make out, is to figure out who does what, and to do that well in advance of the interaction.

In my observation, council have often taken up extreme positions: either turning up with a total blank sheet (unprepared, then risking to look rather unprofessional and a little bit stupid too) or with a patriarchal plan (and then pretended to be interested in what people have to say, and when found out looking a little bit stupid too). Both approaches are not working for obvious reasons. Both have at their heart problems with institutional honesty as they signalise betrayal from the start. The former approach suffers from a lack of a reference frame, the latter from setting up a wholly wrong footing (essentially patronising the citizenship and wasting their time) resulting in resentment, anger and consultation fatigue. Arnstein’s ladder is of help here too to visualise the possible range with regard to citizen influence and involvement.

The question must be about what groundwork must be carried out by the authority before going out into the community. What data and information must be gathered, analysed and presented to give a reasonable reference frame for debate? Whenever I have been out and about in the community (as an officer), it’s been essential I had a strategic understanding of the situation. It’s the detail then, that the community can fill the authority in on. The authority could also in their data-gathering mission be honest about gaps which still need to be filled. The decision to be made is if these gaps needs filling before going into the community or if these are gaps can be discussed and bridged within and through a community debate.

The very minimum of data collection and analysis for communal space-change projects is policy analysis (describing the need, the bigger frame for environmental change, climate change effects) down to transport, traffic and street use data. Much of the data is already available on online platforms. Sometimes it could be too grainy and coarse, and the decision has to be made if the readily available data is sufficient to carry it to the community.

I think you could look at a deliberative approach like a parent-child relationship. There are things that parents know, through experience, through life lessons, through skills they have developed. There is a bigger frame the parent can contribute to the relationship. Kids are eager to play, participate and learn. Kids are also very wise and observant about their own (immediate) world. The connection works through mutual exchange, but it is led and guided by the parent who, in this theory, provides foresight and practical wisdom.

In Newcastle, where I live, work and play, the council often gets entangled. When they are out on the ground it sometimes seems that they do not quite readily know or understand their community-ies.  The problem I have observed is usually linked to the balance-keeping described above. It is not easy, but striking a balance between

  • (sufficiently) knowing yourself (is the data collection and analysis work you carried out, the strategies and polies you have enough?) and
  • knowing the community are two rather different things.

Shifting from a patriarchal (controlling) system to a paternal (caring) system of city-citizen relationship would bring about much needed debate.

People need to be clued up first to have a real shot at good debate – democracy and deliberation needs to be nurtured; it really does not grow on trees. It needs a bit of help, steer, elbowing sometimes and overall support. Putting that initial effort into a system with knowledgeable officers and politicians who can

  • communicate a situation to the citizen groups,
  • listen to their concerns and
  • put these into a wider context,

is most rewarding for everyone involved – for the officers working on it, for the citizens/residents and for the city’s future on the whole.

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