Max Hardy discusses Citizens’ Advisory Panels and their usefulness to councils.
Urbanist Anna Kelderman, Director of Shape Urban recently sat down with Community Engagement Specialist Max Hardy of Max Hardy Consulting, to discuss the nexus between community engagement and urban planning.
You have been practicing a pretty intensive type of engagement for a while now across Australia; what one major benefit would you say results from such a detailed dive into issues?
It’s seems so obvious, but when people appreciate complexity, they approach the invitation to be engaged differently. It is really hard, in fact exhausting, to retain a position, or point of view, while ignoring mounting evidence. Most of the planning issues we face are complex. People are not stupid, and they know things cannot stay as they are indefinitely. Given the opportunity to process information, and consider other perspectives, people become more open and less fixated on what they previously held onto.
Another benefit I see is that communities become more cohesive and appreciative of differences. Communities become more respectful toward technical experts, and technical experts become more appreciative of what the community knows. Different groups become more tolerant, or even accepting, of different points of view. They get to know each other as real people. It’s what this is all about; learning to figure out the challenges and learning to get along with each other.
Do you agree that the community can handle tough discussions better than we give them credit for; maybe even better than experts?
Despite years of working as a community engagement practitioner I still underestimate the ability of people to work through complex issues and provide real wisdom. I don’t necessarily think they are better than experts at it (although for really complex issues it is not unusual for the experts to disagree with one another). To me it’s about designing and facilitating processes that draw on everyone’s knowledge, experience and wisdom; and that includes the experts. It is true though that some experts are so wedded to their expertise they are not all that open to working with others, or even listening. I’d like to think that it’s changing. I believe it is actually.
I know how much focus you place on the framing of questions, and have even TedX’d about it, but what do you think is more important; getting the question right or asking the question in the right way?
Wow. Good question. How did you ask it Anna? So, I think both are equally important. I believe it’s possible to ask a good question but not be genuine about it, in which case it will be counterproductive. It is so important for sponsors of community engagement processes to be genuinely curious.
There is a saying that some politicians have used. They said, ‘Never ask a question you don’t know the answer to yourself.’ For community engagement that attitude is disastrous. I would say, “Never ask a question when you have no interest in how other people will respond.’ I would also say, if you are genuinely curious you are more likely to frame a better question, so they are related.
My turn to ask some questions. What advice would you give to community engagement practitioners as to how to work with planners?
Interestingly, that question takes me right back to the start of my stakeholder engagement journey. Back in the ‘good old days’ when I was a pure planner I put together a couple of tender responses that included the engagement kitchen sink with the support of our stakeholder engagement consultants and with the best of intentions for clients. I lost most of those tenders because potential clients just couldn’t see the return for the cost. I was successful in a particularly memorable one of those tenders…. except the client didn’t want the extent of engagement proposed.
We modified the process to include a much slimmed down engagement task, and agreed to deliver the engagement ourselves. What started as a small engagement activity exploded as soon as we started talking to the community. They were angry and afraid of the project and there was some history. The engagement task blew back out to almost double the cost of our original proposal and the mistrust from the community contributed significantly to a planning project taking about 6 years longer than originally anticipated! The end was relatively successful, but the process was hard.
My advice to community engagement practitioners is to go steady. Unless specifically requested to deliver the gold standard, design engagement plans that start small and can grow in a logical way. Town planning is getting much better at working with the community, and engagement methodologies and technologies are getting more capable of reaching people quickly from all sections of the community, but I think it is still a while before active engagement becomes the norm and before planners start trusting that the community can contribute. Cost is an issue, and the time allowed for engagement is rarely adequate to do it properly, often in the order of a quarter of the time that I would design.
If you want to support the planning industry to reach the conclusion that engagement is important, I recommend finding ways to deliver a good process with real authenticity at a small scale. Be honest with clients about the potential pitfalls and offer bite size added options for them to take up when its really obvious that its a) necessary or b) really working (or both). Being fixed to one method or ‘perfect’ way of engagement might mean the planning industry never gets the full benefit of your skills. Being flexible might mean planners ‘get it’ quicker.
There is a certain kind of irony when engagement experts express concern about the behaviour of technical experts, and use the same ‘expert type’ behaviour to push their case. In defence of engagement practitioners, sometimes it is very hard work for the engagement expertise to be taken seriously at all, so it can be a frustrating experience. Anna, you strike me as a rather unusual planner, in that you don’t seem to be afraid of engaging communities regarding the tough urban planning issues. Am I right?
Perhaps, yes. Several years ago it became really apparent to me that talking with potentially affected communities without pre-supposing a ‘plan’ led to some really great outcomes. Far from the outcome being anti-progress, I found the communities themselves really able to have a nuanced discussion about the benefits and risks – the trade-offs. Most communities I’ve engaged with have been challenged by the uncomfortable tension of urban regeneration and growth, but interested in the opportunities that could be attached to supporting change. So rather than being afraid of engaging with them I am genuinely excited about getting in a room with the community because they have so much to offer and a really rich knowledge of local issues.
How ‘uncool’ is it to be an urban planner who believes in the value of authentically engaging communities?
I wouldn’t say it’s inherently ‘uncool’, but the idea of co-designing with communities on their future is met with some concern that experts should be the ones designing cities, rather than people with no city design experience. Perhaps I might be seen as someone who is reducing the importance of our role as planners and urban designers. But I think that engaging with the community will ultimately improve the faith and trust in the planning profession and potentially lead to greater respect about the role we play in city building.
What have been some of the key lessons you have learned along the way?
The general community can provide more insight into the way a place or community functions than data or analytics (or ultimately combined with data and analytics!). They want to tell us (planners) what they know and what they think, not because they want to say ‘no’ – but because they genuinely care about the outcome and they are the greatest planning asset. On that topic, I don’t agree with the term NIMBY at all. I think this is a term we use to try and excuse away our historically poor engagement practices (decide and defend) and doesn’t reflect what is really happening when people unite against something. Fear mixed with mistrust is a great uniting force so that tells us we need to remove fear and mistrust; let the community into the room and lets see what actually happens (in my experience – magic). And my last lesson is that there is no such thing as a perfect plan; just outcomes that the majority of people can agree with the majority of the time (and also that in planning there is always time to review and improve – Rome was not built in a day!).
What advice would you give other planners, or planning authorities regarding engagement communities?
Be bold and courageous. As planners we are tasked with a really important job of building communities and places that are a legacy for 40, 80, 100 years and existing communities take that very seriously. So, we owe it to communities to talk to them about it, to trust them to help make really complex decisions, to have the same information we have and use it as wisely as we would. The wisdom of the crowd is amazing and inspiring and inventive. Planning authorities should think about engagement as an integrated part of the planning process rather than a legislative requirement. Engage before deciding the outcome, engage honestly and keep engaging. And don’t be afraid of the community. We are the community!
Great advice Anna. Looking forward to working with you again before too long!
When it comes to community engagement, influence matters. There must be some evidence that something has changed as a result of the process. There would appear to be no value for money, or effort, if nothing appears to change; if nothing is influenced. I get that; support that; advocate for that. Always.
Yet, influencing decisions is not the only aspect of community engagement that is important. Is it possible for a process to be quite influential regarding certain decisions with the process being poorly designed? Absolutely. The process could be dominated by well organised, powerful groups with narrow interests, at the expense of groups who are less organised, or everyday citizens. They could have more influence than the majority of others who have been excluded, or not supported to participate in the process.
It is also conceivable that decisions could be influenced by the process, whilst leaving the community lest cohesive, more polarised, and more sceptical about the efficacy of the process. Would we regard such a process as being robust?
I’m not saying that influence is overrated. It’s important, but in isolation is does not necessarily equate to good process. So here are some indicators of success for community engagement I believe should be considered as a package (and their relative importance will vary depending on the scope of the project or issue being addressed).
- Do we have diverse participation? Does everyone believe they have had a ‘fair go’?
- Do people believe their concerns and aspirations have been well understood?
- Does everybody learn something new as a result of the process? (Are we smarter than we were at the beginning?)
- Is there more appreciation of the complexity of the issues being explored, and an understanding of different points of view and different interests?
- Is our ‘community of interest’ more cohesive, resilient and respectful as a result of the process?
- Is there a shared sense we have been exploring the right questions in order to lead to wise, or even a creative, solution?
- Do we have advice, recommendations or decisions that are implementable?
- Will the process encourage decisionmakers to be more open to engaging on other complex issues with their communities as a result of this process?
- Have we built some participatory capital? Is there greater capacity in the community of interest to participate on other matters as a result of being involved in this process?
For me this is about the legacy of community engagement. It’s about impacts that go beyond any decision made from the process. Ultimately, is it more likely to contribute to the world we would prefer to be part of.
I will continue to advocate for a commitment from decisionmakers to be genuinely open to the advice, recommendations and wisdom from engagement processes. However, I will have some other factors in mind. What will be on your radar?
This blog has been invited by Engage2Act around the theme of ‘Influence’ as part of our recognition of Global Community Engagement Day, 28th January.
Principal, Max Hardy Consulting