City Grill: a lesson in civics

The short version: City Grill was a rewarding and productive experiment.  We might not have cracked the Next Big Thing to Revolutionise Local Gov, but there is definite potential to work with gov in new ways.  It’s not easy to engage with community or with government… but local councillors are an excellent resource for anyone who wants to make things happen.

City Grill deliberation

It’s the Monday after a long weekend and exciting first City Grill.

We held the Grill In the lead up to South Australia’s local gov elections— the first CoCreate Adelaide local gov event.  It was an experiment in civic engagement: can we create a fun and engaging way for new groups of people to participate in their local elections?  Can council elections be a focal point for engaging people around local issues, building local civic capacity, and helping people to make things happen?

Ryan Kris is working with other participants to write up an event report now, but here are some of my own take-aways.

Can this sort of event be a great new way to engage more people in their communities?

Not by itself.

Local community groups typically form around a particularly important, topical local issue – like a skyscraper being planned for the end of the street.  Those that last have a dedicated core of people who build personal relationships over time, and support a strong network of direct personal connections.

Without either of these things —a pain point or a strong and engaged local network— local elections aren’t, by themselves, enough to really attract new people.

We did draw new people into an election conversation (half had never voted at local gov level before, and many had no prior affiliation with a local group), but all of these people were active and engaged “usual suspects” with personal relationships with the organisers.  The overall numbers were also small — the usual social promotion was nowhere near as effective as hoped, as people’s personal networks were geographically very broad.

We could have had many more people by doing a lot more proactive promotion, with more time, and by reaching out to local groups and organisations; but we had made the conscious decision not to overdo it.

Was it worth it?  Would we do it again?

Overall I think yes.  It might not be the Next Big Thing, but it was worth doing.

Despite being low key and having low engagement, it wasn’t hard to do, and it was rewarding enough for organisers and others involved too.  I learnt a lot about getting things done in local politics and government, and made some great connections.  The local residents’ group (WEVA) seems to have made good headway working out how to get things done with council.  Smiles all around.

What I’d look to do next time is “plug in” to other things that are going to supercharge the event.  Create a way to feed the conversation results into a commitment, ongoing lobbying or a bigger process… we are writing a report, but it is not a report for anything, except to share with the curious, and for participants to refer to.  The deliberations generated really good material, but without a lot of people they don’t have much weight, and we don’t know what to do with them anyway.

I’d love to connect to councils’ formal community engagement processes, but I’m not sure there is much opportunity there.  The divide between administration and politics is the Great Wall of Government… yes there are lots of holes in the wall, but from what I can see this isn’t one of them.

I think a better option would be to partner with local media outlets… not just for PR, but a genuine partnership to integrate community deliberation with media campaigning (the Advertiser is doing something like this with its campaign for jobs in the North).  I’m sure there would be a way to work with other orgs with an advocacy interest too.  It wouldn’t be easy to line up these relationships, but I think it would make a massive difference if we could.  There might be ways to work collaboratively with councillors too, especially if the collective could demonstrate political clout.

CityGrill Forum - AWEA photo cropped

The main civic lesson: elected reps can help you make things happen

It is hard to understand how councils work, what is going on, how decisions are made, and how to make things happen.

Governments have clean, professional facades that make it seem like things are easy… but really this is just the outside of a black box.  So at first, it seems like the answer is to shout loud enough and to convince someone at council that you are right and your opinion is important.  But after a little while you realise this doesn’t work.  You can convince everyone you meet, but still nothing changes.  Governments are big complex machines, just like the real world.  The people on the inside often have little more understanding than we on the outside do, and they might have even less influence!

We are lucky in SA to have relatively small councils, with approachable local representatives.

If I’ve learnt anything about getting things done in any big system, it’s that you need to find the proactive “yes people” who already get how the system works and can help you plug you into it.  Finding these people inside government can be really really difficult… they are not on the org chart, and they are definitely not listed on the website.  It is all about who you know, and how well you can find the right people.

As it turns out, there is a group of dedicated, big-picture, connected and influential “yes people” that is easy to find — your local councillors.

A typical councillor is 10x more helpful than your average staffer, and 100x more helpful than the person at the end of the council’s customer info line.  Not to dis councils’ customer service staff, but if you want to get things done you don’t want customer service, you want someone who appreciates the challenge of working the system.  Service staff will shake their head at another squeaky wheel rocking the boat, but a councillor will get that you’re making an effort because you care about your community.

It is easy to find your councillors’ contact details on your council website, and they’re used to their community calling them out of the blue to say g’day.  No need to be shy.

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