Wellington Scoop

Consultation: how much is enough?

How much consultation do you need before you’re sure that it has really worked? An example is offered by the Wellington City Council’s social housing staff, who have won a prize for the excellence of their consultation. They’ve set a high standard for the council, which has faced criticism for consultation failures in other areas.

Just two weeks ago, there was a day-long conference where participants criticised the council for failing to involve the public in its decision-making processes. The answer to the problem now seems simple – all consultation should be organised by the council’s housing staff.

As part of its deal to spend $220m of government money to upgrade its houses and apartments, the council has been reviewing its policies for setting rents, managing tenancies and allocating tenancies. It started well, with a tenants’ representative on the review team. Consultation took three months and there were no meetings behind closed doors.

All council tenants were sent a letter inviting them to comment on the proposed policies. Meetings were held at the council’s housing complexes, and all tenants were invited to give their views. Two public meetings were held in council offices, one in the daytime and one in the evening; the meetings were advertised in a newsletter sent to every tenant.

Planning for the upgrades has involved an even more inclusive range of consultation. There’s been a community action programme, with tenants asked to talk about their uses and priorities for community spaces and activities; this included one to one interviews, focus groups, activate sessions, surveys and events.

Tenants were offered “walk and talk” sessions in their complexes, with their viewpoints recorded as they participated. They’ve been invited to participate in three design workshops at each of the complexes which was to be upgraded. At the first. they could offer suggestions for improvements. At the second, they could meet the architect and discuss the design proposals that had been made in response to their concerns. The final session was an “open day” where the final design – created with their involvement – was celebrated.

There’ve also been tenant focus groups, barbecues, soup dinners, on-site clinics, interpreters for tenants whose English was not their first language … even tenancy satisfaction surveys. It’s a big list, all aimed at getting participation from the people who will be most affected by the changes.

For such intensive consultation, the council’s housing upgrade staff and community action teams have deservedly won the Australasian Housing Institute Award for professional excellence.

Which seems to offer a solution to the problem of unsuccessful council consultation – its award-winning housing staff should take control of all council consultation. Then, for example, disaffected Manners Mall businessmen wouldn’t have been left out of the decision-making for Manners Street. And the rest of us could participate in the super-city discussions, instead of being made to wait until the Mayoral Forum’s closed-door meetings have made all the decisions on our behalf.

1 comment:

  1. peter brooks, 29. April 2010, 14:45

    It does sound as though that was a good consultation, although it is not clear to what extent the final decisions were amended as a result of tenant input.

    The advantage of that consultation was that because a relatively small group of people were directly affected by the proposals they could be identified and efforts made to involve as many as possible.

    Other consultations are more difficult to manage. In the case of the waterfront for example very few people bother to respond to an invitation to comment on proposals. It is all too easy for the Council to dismiss the comments of the few who do respond as being unrepresentative or ill-informed and to assume that everybody else is happy with what is proposed.

    It would be good if the Council gave some thought to why they did so well in respect of the social housing consultation and why they generally do so badly in their efforts to engage.