The City of Greater Bendigo has a large urban area home to around 85% of the local government area's population; in turn this is surrounded by an array of rural areas and small towns. In most circumstances this pattern generally leads to a sense that the centre “gets everything” at the expense of the outer areas. We had no idea of the accuracy of that view, but it raised an important question. How could the local Council ensure they were provided with a considered consensus view about the range and level of services (in the broad sense, so including capital works) to be provided across all of Greater Bendigo?
The City of Bendigo is required to produce a new Council Plan setting out the key strategic issues and outcomes it will focus on in its term of office and outlining the services they provide to the community by June 2017, following elections in October 2016.
With this in mind, Bendigo presented an ideal test environment for an approach which should be widely applicable across local government. Having undertaken a highly visible and extensive portfolio of capital works in recent years the community have had a chance to experience a larger range of new services than most. The citizens’ voice in this process was not be conceptual – it was highly grounded in what they had seen, lived through and valued.
Our concept was a simple one: take a fairly small group of people through a deep experience of the work done by Council and identify the areas of common ground they find. It was not an audit. It was not an expert advisory report. It was a valid and reliable summary of local views from the community which the new Council (post-election) can now use as a key input. Councillors will know what the impassioned and motivated advocates feel is right for the community, because they hear from them often.
In contrast the jury newDemocracy convened was designed to inform Councillors of the informed views of people who are much less likely to ever engage with Council. As a shorthand: our elected tend to hear from insisted voices. We are added a structure to make some room for invited voices.
We convened a jury of 28 people who reflected the broader Bendigo community in terms of age, gender, ratepayer status and importantly given the geography challenges mentioned above, locality. The project has now concluded, with the jury producing both a written and a video report for Council. This was presented to the Council for their formal response, in writing, by March 2017.