An Introduction to Participatory Media and Local Governments 4

This is an extract from my PhD research proposal review, submitted and approved in September 2013. As this is an introduction to a proposal, it is exploratory and sometimes vague. It does not contain all information and data I have collected on a particular point to the moment of writing, nor does it claim to make any conclusions or findings about any of the data contained herein. 

In July 2013, Ray Robinson arrived at a press briefing with Wollongong City Council to hear about some controversial land re-zonings. He expected, like the representatives of other media organisations present, to be given access to council information in order to prepare his reports for publication. But Ray wasn’t representing a traditional media organisation. He wasn’t, in other words, a member of the media. Ray was writing – voluntarily – for Illawarra News, a non-profit citizen-founded and run website. Council’s media liaison told Ray that since he wasn’t “accredited”, he couldn’t gain access to the documents before they were released publicly. Until that point, Illawarra News had been treated like all other media organisations by Wollongong City Council. They had been given access to the media desk at Council meetings and copied in to emailed press releases. But now, an accreditation policy – that wouldn’t subsequently be released despite requests for access – stood in the way of Ray participating in his local government.

There are numerous intertwined issues that can be unpacked from this short anecdote. The local government in question, Wollongong City Council, was under pressure about the controversial matter, which was slated for discussion at a forthcoming Council meeting. Those meetings are “required, as a general rule, to be open to the public” under the Local Government Act 1993 (New South Wales, 1993)1. The Act makes mention of media organisations only insofar as requiring councils to make certain things public in newspapers and regulating filming in public places, but explicitly excludes television news and current affairs from filming application requirements (New South Wales, 1993)1. The Act, then, presumes representatives of media organisations to be members of the public. This is where questions start to arise. Who has authority to engage with a council and to report that engagement to a public audience? On what basis is that authority constituted? Who can lay claim to legitimate representation of other members of the public? Who are these publics anyway? How are they formed and why do they become involved in council matters? To whom should local governments provide information? As Ray Robinson showed, these questions become much more difficult to answer, both for members of the public and for local governments, when the citizen is both a media person and public person (in the sense of being part of the public). Ray, as a citizen, has chosen to participate in local government in a way previously reserved for recognised and ‘accredited’ media organisations, and he has raised questions about distinctions between media and public, and between media and the media. When individuals, governments and citizens have the same level of access to media tools, even old paradigms of democracy start to be questioned.

Consider two local government authorities seeking input from residents on the design of central business districts under their control. The first, Christchurch City Council, was rebuilding after the 2011 earthquake that caused widespread destruction in the city. The second, Wingecarribee Shire in New South Wales, is preparing master plans for the three main town centres under its jurisdiction.2 Christchurch City had a limited timeframe of just nine months to prepare a redevelopment plan for the central city area, beginning ten weeks after the earthquake. This was compounded by a complex system of seven “planning workstreams” and other factors to do with the aftermath of the quake3. And yet, the Christchurch consultation strategy attracted over 106,000 submissions, around one for every four residents. This is up on a figure of one submission for every 268 people that had contributed to the existing community plan (Haslam, 2013)3. In contrast, Wingecarribee Shire has attracted just one submission per 708 residents. What makes this difference even more striking is that Wingecarribee’s general long-term community plan had 530 responses – one for every 86 residents – indicating that the population is generally engaged (WSC 2011)4.

To develop their town/city centre plans, both local governments made use of websites supplemented with face-to-face consultation. Both sought input on similar issues. Christchurch faced significant challenges that Wingecarribee did not and yet there is a wide disparity between the levels of community engagement at the two. Here are two local government authorities operating in similar countries and similar legislative environments, seeking engagement on similar issues, but with vastly different rates of participation.

The Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) of New Zealand identified Christchurch City Council’s engagement strategy – called ‘Share an Idea’ – as a valuable case study for the use of social media by public entities, noting that it could be used to highlight “emerging practices or lessons and collate some critical success factors that could be useful to other public entities” (OAG 2013, p. 8)5. The OAG explained that two of the key lessons from Share an Idea were the importance of using simple and real language and listening to people rather than guiding responses (2013)5. It would seem that the issue at the heart of this process (rebuilding after a devastating and deadly earthquake) also contributed to the high rate of participation.

The potential for government practice combining with a public interest to produce democratic participation in local government is the result of a series of converging factors. These include the enfranchisement of the public to participate democratically in government outside of that most visceral practice of democracy, voting. The constitution of the public – who they are, where they come from and how they form – underlies the move to enfranchise them. In the cases discussed above, two local governments actively sought participation, but there are also cases of issue-publics operating outside of government before democratic participation occurs, as Ray Robinson found out. There is a difference between government-induced and organic community participation practices. The means by which public participation occurs is another factor to consider, especially in a world of technological abundance where information and communication technologies in particular are largely cheap and accessible, though of course there are exceptions and exclusions to this method of participation.

Underlying the process of obtaining submissions for both the Christchurch and Wingecarribee local governments is a general philosophy of public participation in government. This term itself is widely applicable in democratic governance such as that practiced by local government authorities in Australia and similar countries. It is defined by the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) as “any process that involves the public in problem-solving or decision-making and that uses public input to make better decisions” (IAP2 Australasia 2013)6. More relevantly, participation is mandated upon councils by state legislation, as is “community engagement”, which might also be understood as public participation. One of the purposes of the New South Wales Local Government Act 1993 is: “to encourage and assist the effective participation of local communities in the affairs of local government”, while the introduction to chapter four of the same act states: “members of the public may influence council decisions… by participating in council community engagement activities” (NSW, 1993)1. Aulich notes such provisions are common in the state legislation concerning local government across Australia (in Brunet-Jailly & Martin, 2010)7. Public participation is, at least notionally, a key practice of local governments in Australia.

The constitution and role of the public is being rethought in two disparate but related fields: participatory culture and governance. The former recognises an increase in creative activity and outputs as part of a general shift to a society of information and content producers rather than consumers. Theorists such as Henry Jenkins term this a ‘prosumer’ (a portmanteau term merging producer and consumer) or convergence culture (see especially Jenkins, 2006a)8. The second trend has been termed described as ‘governance’. Proponents of this term state it is “more about the processes of public policy and engagement than it is about the structure and institutions of government” (Brunet-Jailly & Martin, 2010, p. 8)7. In this way, (participatory) governance contrasts with organisation-oriented understandings of government. The two trends can be linked, in part, by new media technologies that facilitate collaboration and sharing behaviours. These media – participatory by design and practice – enable, in the phrasing of internet theorist Clay Shirky, “ridiculously easy group-forming” (2008, p. 54)9 or to put it more simply, networking. The groups that form through the use of this technology can be considered publics.

When applied to and by governments, these technologies potentially facilitate an increase in community engagement, as in the cases above. However, as above, these improvements are not uniform, nor are they necessarily easily identifiable. In the volume Making Things Public, Bruno Latour and others argue the fundamental dynamic of politics is to ‘make things public’ (Latour & Weibel, 2005)10. In practical terms, this means that the logic of politics and government is to facilitate the formation of a public, often around issues (‘things’). Who are these publics? Where do they come from? How do they form? There is undoubtedly a role for communicative technologies – themselves a ‘thing’ under many of the definitions offered by Latour & Weibel’s collaborators – in answering these questions. Both of the trends discussed above necessitate a reconceptualisation of the public, and whatever spheres it might inhabit, and a reorganisation of understandings about the way a public might interact with a government or other actors.

The idea of engaging the public in the practices and decisions of government is central to many conceptions of democratic representative government, even if the proponents of these arguments have done little to actively and coherently mobilise the public about which they theorise. John Stuart Mill, in the foundational essay Representative Government, argued that the “pure idea of democracy… is the government of the whole people by the whole people, equally represented” (Mill, 1861 [2005]). Mill recognised there was more to representative democracy than just the practice of voting, even if other participation in 1861 was limited to “(r)eading newspapers, and perhaps writing to them, public meetings, and solicitations of different sorts addressed to the political authorities” (Mill, 1861 [2005])11. He noted also that there is more opportunity for citizens to be elected and serve other roles in local government than in national government. Unfortunately, Mill’s general phrasing – “the whole people” – seems to have framed a debate about the role of the public in which the construct of ‘the public’ is generally unexplored.

A precondition of participatory democracy is a willingness to participate in a dialogue, which itself is predicated upon listening as well as speaking. Penman and Turnbull argue “(l)istening across differences lies at the heart of participatory democracy: it allows us to live communally in our difference and it is the process within which we are able to consider new possibilities and new choices” (2012, p. 68)12. The argument here is for a “public dialogue” in which participants share a commitment to listening as much as to speaking (Penman & Turnbull, 2012, p. 69)12. As the New Zealand Auditor-General demonstrated, listening is at least as important for government as it is for non-government participants in democratic processes.

Australian local government authorities are adapting to the emergence of participatory media technologies in a variety of ways. This adaptation is driven by federal government initiatives such as the Digital Local Government Program (DBCDE 2012)13 and the potential of digital media technologies as important communication tools, amongst other factors. Additionally, “community engagement” is a legislative requirement for local governments across the country. A role for social networking websites, in particular, in event promotion and “general community engagement” was evident in a comprehensive report by Howard et al (2012)14 for the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government (ACELG). However, councils also noted difficulties around controlling information and negative feedback as high-level barriers to the use of social networking websites (Purser, 2012)15.

The usefulness of digital media for broadcast purposes (such as event promotion) and a perceived need to limit negative information can be contrasted with the identified desire of citizens for active civic engagement. Shirky (2010)16 argues that the evolution of issue-based ad hoc social networks for civic engagement on specific topics through online participatory media suggests that citizens are keen to engage with issues in collaboration with government bodies. However, Shirky’s observations suggest civic engagement often arises outside of formal political processes and may be already established by the time engagement with government occurs. Meanwhile, Rheingold (2008)17 says that young people are very active producers of digital social media content and that such interest in participation is also likely to apply to civics. Writing of the audience for public affairs broadcaster C-Span in the United States, Schultz (in Young, 2007)18 argues persuasively that citizens across the demographic spectrum want to engage with the political process. This all feeds into the emergent participatory culture briefly outlined above and, importantly, into ideas about participatory governance.

  1. New South Wales. Local Government Act 1993 (1993). Retrieved from http://www.legislation.nsw.gov.au/fullhtml/inforce/act+30+1993+CD+0+N [] [] []
  2. Post-script: a Wingecarribee staffer has correctly pointed out that my data is incomplete. See the discussion in comments for more detail. []
  3. Haslam, T. (2013). You’re the Voice. Audit Blog. Retrieved June 19, 2013, from http://blog.oag.govt.nz/social-media-audit/christchurch-city-council [] []
  4. Wingecarribee Shire Council. (2011). Report on Community Engagement Strategy: Wingecarribee 2031+. Moss Vale, NSW. Retrieved from http://www.wsc.nsw.gov.au/uploads/550/report_on_community_engagement_strategy-adopted-22062011.pdf []
  5. Office of the Auditor General. (2013). Learning from public entities’ use of social media. Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.oag.govt.nz/2013/social-media/docs/social-media.pdf [] []
  6. International Association for Public Participation Australasia. (2013). Foundations of Public Participation. Wollongong, NSW. Retrieved from http://www.iap2.org.au/documents/item/83 []
  7. Brunet-Jailly, E., & Martin, J. F. (Eds.). (2010). Local Government in a Global World: Australia and Canada in Comparative Perspective. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press. [] []
  8. Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where New and Old Media Collide. New York: New York University Press. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/2027/heb.05936.0001.001 []
  9. Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody. New York: The Penguin Press. []
  10. Latour, B., & Weibel, P. (Eds.). (2005). Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe & Massachusetts Institute of Technology. []
  11. Mill, J. S. (1861). Representative Government (2005 eBook.). Adelaide: University of Adelaide. Retrieved from http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/mill/john_stuart/m645r/index.html []
  12. Penman, R., & Turnbull, S. (2012). From listening… to the dialogic realities of participatory democracy. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 26(1), 61–72. doi:10.1080/10304312.2012.630145 [] []
  13. Department of Broadband Communications and the Digital Economy. (2012). The Digital Local Government Program. Canberra, ACT. Retrieved from http://www.dbcde.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/136412/Digital_Local_Government_program_fact_sheet.pdf []
  14. Howard, A. E. (2012). Connecting With Communities: How Local Government is Using Social Media to Engage With Citizens. Canberra, ACT. Retrieved from http://www.acelg.org.au/upload/documents/1345603527_Connecting_with_Communities_ANZSIG-ACELG_August_2012.pdf []
  15. Purser, K. (2012). Using Social Media in Local Government: 2011 Survey Report. Sydney. Retrieved from http://www.acelg.org.au/upload/program2/1340860323_SocialMediaReport_web.pdf []
  16. Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. New York: The Penguin Press. []
  17. Rheingold, H. (2008). Using Participatory Media and Public Voice to Encourage Civic Engagement. In W. L. Bennett (Ed.), Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth (pp. 97–118). Cambridge: MIT Press. []
  18. Young, S. (Ed.). (2007). Government Communication in Australia. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. []

4 thoughts on “An Introduction to Participatory Media and Local Governments

  1. wil Oct 14,2013 2:24 pm

    Dear Travis,
    I note that you make Reference to the consultation process undertaken in the Wingecarribee Twon Centre Master Plans. I am curious about your comparitive analysis with respect to community response (Christchurch-Post Earthquake Redevelopment Plan and WSC Town Centres Masterplans), if your response numbers for WSC are calculated on assessment of the “Your Say” website it may fail to capture community input and involvement that progressed in public community meetings and forums, and other focussed engagement with members of the business, art and heritage. The Town Centres Masterplans are currently work in progress and subject to continuing community engagement and input.

    • Travis Holland Oct 14,2013 4:25 pm

      Hi Wil,

      Yes, thank you for making that point. You are correct in where I sourced the data. The main reason for this is that until I have approval from the University’s Human Research Ethics Committee, I have to be careful about accessing and using data that is not publicly available.

      I tried not to make direct comparison between the two, as the Christchurch data is more complete. Instead, I wanted to make a general point about the use of various strategies at different local governments. However, I accept that in the limited extract in this post, that probably doesn’t come across as well as it might have. There were further details elsewhere in the paper, which I can’t make available in whole.

      The incompleteness of the data was one reason I held off putting any of this work out there but I finally decided to release it after a couple of requests. It doesn’t help that my assessment of the data was done some time ago and probably isn’t even up to date. The fact that I was also one of the contributors to that forum complicates the matter further. I probably won’t use this particular example in the final research unless I discuss it in much more detail during the interviews early next year.

      Nonetheless, thanks for your comments Wil. It is something I should have addressed earlier, and I’m glad you brought it up 🙂

      • wil Oct 16,2013 10:25 am

        Dear Travis,
        I thank you for your response, and wish to encourage you to integrate the Wingecarribee work within your PhD. the Southern Highlands forms an interesting and perplexing case study (possibly not visited in a PhD since the 1960’s and then published as a fictional novel) . I particularly appreciate your reference to John Stuart Mill, and acknowledgement of Civil Society. I am particularly interested in the role that Civil Society play in its ability to shape the urban environment through the various forms of social (and participarory) media.
        kind regards
        wil

        • Travis Holland Oct 16,2013 11:12 am

          Another thing missing from this introduction is mention of the case studies. I have settled – at this stage – on five case studies of Wollongong, Wingecarribee, Wollondilly, Kiama and Shellharbour. See post here for more details: http://www.travisholland.com.au/2013/10/case-studies.

          The methodology will consist of textual analysis first followed by interviews. I’ll be contacting all the councils soon to discuss arranging the interviews, but once again I need to have it approved by the HREC first.

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