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March 28, 2011 | by  | in Opinion |
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Kate follows Celia – Community Involvement

Public participation gives the Council a better under-standing of the problem and an outcome that more people are happy with.

Usually this means that the social, cultural, environmental and economic impacts are maximised for everyone as well. If more people are happy with an outcome, policies will be more legitimate and easier to enforce.

Participation doesn’t come free—it takes time and money to talk effectively with the people. Often the results of participation are not concurrent with the desired outcome of a rich, powerful minority group, so the public’s opinions are disregarded.

When this is the case, public participation becomes a token gesture and has no weight in decision making. Wellington City Council consulted with the public over the decision to turn Manners Mall into a bus route. 472 submissions were received on the proposed changes. What impact did this have on the final decision?

VUW lecturer Dr Sophie Bond says, submissions and public meetings are the two main ways people get involved. These are “often a one-way communication with the Authority informing local residents, rather than a more meaningful approach to gaining local knowledge or opinions on an issue”.

Perhaps the opportunities to have your say are there and we’re simply apathetic. Voter turnouts show this, both locally and nationally.
Or do we care, but only about things that directly affect us? This also sounds plausible—I’m much more likely to act about my own local library facing reduced hours, than Tawa’s library hours.

I still probably wouldn’t write a submission opposing shorter library hours for Karori—not because I don’t care, but because I don’t know how to write a submission well enough for it to be taken seriously. It’s not just about feeling comfortable writing a submission, but also not knowing about the issue itself – the time and effort into just being aware of the issue and knowing how to be involved are considerable, and so a considerable barrier.

Celia campaigned on community action, listening to the community and learning from the people. It’s an evolutionary process, change is happening. She has run two ‘Meet the Mayor and Councillors’ days—an opportunity for organisations and the Council to meet and have a two-way conversation. As Celia herself points out, “they [community groups] will be much more comfortable raising issues with Councillors, now they’ve met them”. And the community care: the ten-hour days were entirely booked out in both December and March. Celia herself has built and belongs to a lot of community groups, which indicates that she actively cares about the people and what they say.

The Council are limited in what they can do in terms of providing opportunities to get involved, not just by law, but financially. A realistic point from Dr Sophie Bond: “We live in a world that privileges economic efficiency—participation takes time and money and doesn’t always produce the most economically beneficial outcome, even if it might produce good social or environmental outcomes”. On a more positive note, Dr Bond also nods to the plan making process, where there are “real opportunities for people to be involved in shaping the rules that govern our city spaces”.

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