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Cities, democracy and sustainability - local government to the rescue?


Like many others, I'm a strong believer in the need for stronger democratic processes in Australia so that we can achieve fairer, more sustainable outcomes. Some of the best work to achieve this is being done at local government level, with state and federal governments playing an important role. There's plenty of room for improvement though.

In this article in The Conversation by Jago Dodson, Professor of Urban Policy and Director, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University, argues that "All the signs point to our big cities’ need for democratic, metro-scale governance".

As Jago explains, Infrastructure Australia published a Report in 2018 that highlighted the need for integrated governance and leadership. The report focuses on Sydney and Melbourne's development over the next 25 years, but the risk of "fragmented governance and disjointed infrastructure provision by local councils" applies across the country.

Jago also warns that cities that lack a robust democratic foundation can fall victim to the stifling effects of technocratic managerialism - a very effective way to demoralise staff and further alienate the community.

Jago suggests that a "new planning authority model is necessary that sits between the overarching state legislative framing and local administration and services" which he says "should aim for a metropolitan governing body to enable effective representative decision-making about urban strategy and investment". It would certainly be desirable to achieve better integration in the way we govern cities. A new planning authority model could go a long way to achieve this. It's similar to an idea proposed by participants in a Citizen's Jury on governance models in Western Australia in 2004, although that was in relation to decision making broadly, not just planning.

Infrastructure Australia also recommends larger government entities - including local governments. However simply reducing the number of local councils to increase their geographical reach is no guarantee of improved integration. What really counts is whether we know how to have informed dialogue between communities and government in order to make better decisions, and implement them. It's not just how the boundaries are drawn, it's also how dialogue permeates those boundaries.

I've worked with many people from Western Australian State Government organisations who think the way they currently collaborate internally is unsatisfactory and want to improve it. Some of them feel this failure so acutely that they are reluctant to go to the community with collaborative governance processes until they sort themselves out. As one manager asked me: "How can we ask the community to collaborate with us when we don't know how to do it properly ourselves?" Good point.

There's hope though. We already have tools to embed appropriate deliberative democracy processes at and between every level of government. They are tried and tested.

I've worked on a number of exciting deliberative democracy projects. The City of Vincent held a public deliberation - a 21st Century Dialogue - to enable a randomly selected group of citizens to decide whether the City should merge with neighbouring jurisdictions, and if so, how. The City of Greater Geraldton ran a long deliberative process that included a participatory budget, the development of the Community Strategic Plan, and a Digital Futures Plan. The City's 2029 and Beyond project won international awards for its innovative approach to collaborating with the public to make better decisions.

We know we need to do things differently, and we have some runs on the board that demonstrate it's possible. Let's get on with it.