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Community Meetings/Forums

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Brief description of technique
Usually organised by the council, community meetings and forums bring together interested people for information and discussion of an issue. They are generally held at a community venue, at the site of the matter under consultation, or at the council offices. They can be held on a general, ward or neighbourhood basis.
To what kinds of consultation situations is this approach best suited?

General or "public" meetings are often held in response to statutory requirements under land use legislation or broader strategic planning. They are often called in response to unforeseen or significant issues that impact a municipality.

Ward meetings are convened to meet the needs of individual councillors in communicating with their constituencies.

How much time is generally needed?
Two to three hours for the meeting.
What skills are required?

Well-developed facilitation skills are very important in this context. Public meetings or forums can often attract large numbers of people who may feel very passionately about the issue being discussed and may focus the meeting on one particular aspect of whatever proposal is on offer.

It is important that all views concerning the proposal are canvassed and the facilitator or chair should work to create the space where this can occur to avoid unnecessary confrontation.

Conflict resolution skills are useful in this context.

What kind of information do participants require prior to their involvement?
Generally, information about the purpose of the consultation may be provided through promotional exercises or formal advertising. In some cases, particularly land use planning applications, information may be provided in a designated space prior to the meeting and relevant documents made available.
Brief outline of how the process usually works

A chairperson or facilitator, who may be a councillor, local government staff member or external consultant, will outline the proceedings or agenda and canvas views to seek agreement on this format and introduce relevant speakers. Specific reference to the purpose of the consultation, including details of how the input will be used, is made.

A set of rules about how views will be heard is outlined and agreement sought from participants at the outset.

Generally a set of presentations is made concerning the issue to be discussed. Questions are usually held after this has occurred.

Structured time is then allotted for questions and answers, after which there may be an opportunity for broader discussion and comments from key stakeholders.

There are more innovative ways to conduct community meetings (for example holding a walking community meeting) or choosing a venue appropriate to the issue being discussed (eg: a park, community venue or restaurant).

How the process is successfully concluded?

The meeting will usually conclude with the facilitator or local government representative outlining an ongoing process or resolution which can be put to participants with some structured discussion.

Details of how any decision made will be and then communicated to participants is important here.

How this approach is usually evaluated?
Evaluation will vary, but may be assisted with a simple feedback sheet for participants to gauge the appropriateness of the venue, time and facilitator.
Strengths
  • Provides opportunities for the community to speak without rebuttal.
  • Meets statutory requirements and enables comments to be put on record.
Weaknesses
  • Does not foster dialogue.
  • Can create a community versus council environment.
  • Can be an intimidating space for individuals to speak up.
  • Can be captured by a vocal minority.
Resources Required
  • Large hall or meeting space.
  • Variations on venue or approach have included park or street-based venues.
  • Catering for large numbers may be resource-intensive but will invite more informal discussions and acknowledge people's input.
  • A number of local government staff members will be needed to direct participants within the venue.

CASE STUDY

Council or other authority
Darebin City Council
Name of Project
Darebin Poverty Inquiry
Date of consultation
November 1999-November 2000
Aim of consultation
To identify the causes and manifestations of poverty in Darebin, with a particular focus on housing affordability, unemployment, gambling and access to services.
Consultation methods used
  • Public forum to scope issues
  • Three community forums on specific aspects of poverty
  • Twelve individual interviews with people experiencing poverty
  • Two poverty action workshops to identify realistic and achievable actions
  • Broad-based reference group to provide community input into research methodology and outcomes
Description of consultation

The concept of community forums was derived from the method used during the course of the People Together Project, where several public hearings were held on issues of concern to Victorians during the Kennett government era.

For the purposes of the Poverty Inquiry, council decided to hold community forums instead of public hearings to ensure the format was accessible to community members. Local residents and community organisations were invited to talk about their experiences or perceptions of poverty, the effects poverty was having on Darebin and thoughts on strategies which could address poverty and other related issues.

A panel, consisting of the mayor and several prominent community leaders, heard written and verbal submissions. The key research questions provided a format for presentations. Each presenter was allowed 20 minutes, which included 10 minutes for questions and discussion. People were given the opportunity to present confidential information to the panel. The sessions were tape-recorded, with consent from presenters.

The community forums were widely advertised in local newspapers and invitations were extended to a broad range of community organisations. Community forums were held in small venues to ensure optimum community access and to create an atmosphere.

More than 20 presenters attended community forums which were open to the public at Northcote Library, Darebin Community Health Service and Reservoir Maternal and Child Health Centre in March 2000.

Issues raised included inter-generational poverty in families, the difficulties Cambodian households faced in accessing work and education, issues for single people in accessing affordable housing and the largely hidden impacts of problem gambling across the community.

Success of the consultation

The community forum was successful many perspectives on poverty were heard. The panel format enabled questions, clarifications and a dialogue to develop. The composition of the panel, with a mix of council and community representatives, ensured the process was community-driven and not dominated by council. The smaller, non-council venues also ensured that council 'went to the community', not the other way around.

Presenters represented the perspectives of a range of service providers and community groups. While some individuals presented, there were few submissions from people directly experiencing poverty. This influenced the next stage of the research methodology, in conducting 12 interviews with people directly experiencing poverty, from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances.

Other comments
The methodology and consultation process used for the Poverty directly engaged community members in identifying key concerns and how to address them.
Contact person
Name: Glenn Menner Position: Social Policy Officer
Phone number: 03 9230 4368 Email: [email protected]

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