6 Industry Interviews: The year that was and what might be

As 2017 draws to a close, we've rounded up some interesting people who work in the world of public participation, community engagement and deliberative democracy.   Our interviewees, who hail from as far as the UK and New Zealand, have shared their reflections on the year that was 2017, and their hopes and predictions for what might be in 2018. 

From a researcher to facilitator and digital engagement expert to local government employee - these interviews offer a diverse collection of perspectives and ideas.  

Thank you to the six individuals who have taken the time to share their candid, insightful and inspiring thoughts.  Here's to a 2018 that shines bright for the engagement and deliberative democracy space. 

 


Iain Walker - newDemocracy

Iain Walker

Executive Director,
NewDemocracy Foundation

My job/work in a nutshell

My job is to change our democracy – to create a structural role for randomly selected, everyday people and to do so in a way that’s not about public opinion but makes people sit and think and deliberate.

The best thing about what I do

That people are listening.  You see a change over time. People from commercial sectors, from politics, people who you wouldn't think would have a revolutionary outlook, perhaps some cynical journalists as well.   They’re all saying the system must change and that this (approach to change) is very much part of the right idea.

The most common problem I see in this space

It’s easy to put a name on something and call it a jury or a deliberation.  So the problem is that there's a risk of it becoming ‘fashionable’ rather than substantive.

One easy way to overcome this issue

Start with a more honest conversation about what goes wrong.  People need to be able to discuss that. It's an emerging field - discuss failures. 

People are listening.  You see a change over time. People from commercial sectors, from politics, people who you wouldn’t think would have a revolutionary outlook, perhaps some cynical journalists as well.   They’re all saying the system must change.
— Iain Walker

The most surprising thing I learned in 2017

International cooperation is really going to make a difference. 

The most exciting or creative thing I saw in this space in 2017

What's happening in Ireland.  We look at Ireland and we tip our hat.  They have created what amounts to an 'office of deliberation' out of the Prime Minister's office.  If you can take on abortion laws in Ireland - and just the mere fact you can get that project commissioned - demonstrates a substantive change from 'politics as usual'.

An emerging trend might be ...

Using citizens' deliberative models as a 'tie breaker' mechanism.  For example, when a parliament gets stalled.  We'd love to see a standing house of citizens that can be like a 'release valve' for when everyone in parliament rejects something - it would give all the politicians a chance to make their case to a jury of citizens.  I think more models like that will start to emerge.

In 2018, I hope...

The newDemocracy Foundation is capable of surprising people.

Learn more about my work

Visit www.newdemocracy.com.au


Cindy Plowman Industry Interview 2017

Cindy Plowman

Coordinator Community Engagement,
Bayside City Council

My job/work in a nutshell

I feel like an interpreter, I often find myself explaining the ins and outs of community engagement, when and when not to use the various approaches. On a daily basis, I sometimes feel I am interpreting ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The best thing about what I do

Seeing the genuine delight and surprise on the face of project managers when they receive feedback from a consultation program that enhances their understanding of the project or improves the project detail. It lights me up, it is a genuine exchange of information and insight.

The most common problem I see in this space

Technical experts underestimating how interested members of the community are in  in matters that them.  Also the level of knowledge and expertise they have around the subject matter.

One easy way to overcome this issue

Provide genuine opportunities for stakeholders to engage as early in the process as possible. Provide as much information as practically possible and explain the dilemma.

I often find myself explaining the ins and outs of community engagement, when and when not to use the various approaches. On a daily basis, I sometimes feel I am interpreting ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
— Cindy Plowman

The most surprising thing that I learned in 2017

A person like Donald Trump could get elected, stay in power and make decisions on behalf of America. It leaves me speechless.

The most exciting or creative thing I saw in this space in 2017

It was a joint project with MosaicLab, we created a “speed dating” session for members of the community to engage with well-regarded planning and infrastructure experts. Again it was a genuine exchange of information and understanding between the technical experts and community.

An emerging trend might be ...

Managing the increased tension around the use of open space - in increasingly built up areas open space is already at a premium. As a society we are so fortunate to have experiences in vast open spaces for a great length of time and areas for sport, recreation and environmental conservation are getting squeezed.

In 2018, I hope … 

To build my muscle in managing anger and community frustration, it really is just another emotion and one that is not as easily accepted and often even avoided in community engagement practices. Perhaps it is the stifling and active avoidance that actually amplifies the anger? Just a contemplation for 2018.

Connect with me

On Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/cindy-plowman


Gerry Stoker - participation, engagement and democracy, industry interviews 2017

Gerry Stoker

Centenary Research Professor, University of Canberra and Professor of Governance, University of South Hampton (UK)

My job/work in a nutshell

Primarily, my focus is on research into contemporary democracy and how people engage with politics, policies and decision making.

The best thing about what I do

I am lucky to have a great balance between working with others and being a sole researcher.  Sometimes I’m writing on my own, other times I’m part of a team.  Social sciences can be a collective endeavour where you often share ideas, methods and experiences.

The most common problem I see in this space

The vehicle we use in democracy, which is politics, is deeply problematic and flawed.  It’s an activity that can be optimistic and powerful, but that is also open to dishonesty, manipulation and a lack of accuracy. 

Across time there have been cynical reactions to politics, but particularly in relation to how it is currently practiced.  People feel they have low influence over and engagement in politics, and the only way they are connected to it is through soundbites and 24/7 media – it’s alienating.  We can’t do democracy without politics, but because it’s so problematic, it’s difficult to do democracy well.

One easy way to overcome this issue is

Some of the democratic innovations that are happening around the world are part of the answer.  We need to find ways that people can connect to decisions and politics.  It’s about creating opportunities for people to experience democracy in its better forms.

We need to find ways that people can connect to decisions and politics.  It’s about creating opportunities for people to experience democracy in its better forms.
— Gerry Stoker

The most surprising thing that I learned in 2017

In 2017 I’ve been able to expand my range of research sites and do comparative work across many democracies.  What’s surprising is that there are patterns of problems and challenges that are shared. 

I hope we can address these and learn from one another in a collective way. It’s ignorant to assume that what’s happening to your country is unique – this is a perspective that holds us back.   The challenges we face are remarkably similar. 

The most exciting or creative thing I saw in this space in 2017

Unfortunately, in 2017 there were more causes for depression than optimism to be honest - what's happening in the US, Europe and  Australia at a Federal level and the problematic nature of politics in general, is concerning.  In many ways the quality of politics appears to be worse than 10 years ago.

On the optimistic side, there is some discussion around these issues and decision making, public policy etc.  If any democracy is in a position to begin to explore change, it’s Australia.  However, overall the power still rests with the political elites.

An emerging trend might be...

People looking for diverse solutions and not imagining that one democratic innovation will be the ultimate fix.  A focus on a system of democratic practice and people talking about positive political and democratic advances with a system-wide focus.

In 2018, I hope … 

That there's an opportunity in Australia for a major constitutional convention applying some principles and practices taken from citizens’ juries.  This would include involvement from the political elite. 

Learn more about my work

Visit the University of Southampton website


Simon Wright engagement participation and democracy industry interviews 2017

Simon Wright

Partner, Public Engagement Projects (PEP), Wellington

My job/work in a nutshell

I work in spaces such as governance, decision-making, academia and the news media, I advocate for, teach, experiment with, and consult using approaches to public engagement based on deliberative democracy.

The best thing about what I do

Working with interesting and diverse people in New Zealand, Australia and beyond to advance democratic governance.

The most common problem I see in this space

Poor listening and people repeating past mistakes as they sleepwalk into the future.

One easy way to overcome this issue is

There's some basic things that can improve organisational listening but there isn't an easy way of changing the way people understand things and do things. This is one of the big challenges for the twenty-first century.

Some of the new digital engagement tools make the prospect of mass participation not so distant. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and data visualisations can be used to help people make sense of contested issues and enhance democratic participation.
— Simon Wright

The most surprising thing I learned in 2017

That some of the new digital engagement tools make the prospect of mass participation not so distant. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and data visualisations can be used to help people make sense of contested issues and enhance democratic participation.
 

The most exciting or creative thing I saw in this space in 2017

The HiveMind project by Scoop Independent News, which piloted using Polis (one of these new digital tools) to enable readers to co-create the news agenda while working through such complex issues as sugar and public health policy and measures to make housing affordable.

An emerging trend might be ...

That the interest in, and promise of, digital engagement might finally begin to be realised in the next few years.
 

In 2018, I hope...

To be able to see if we can use some of these new digital tools to enhance current deliberative processes such as citizens' juries.

Learn more about my work

Visit https://pep.org.nz


Kate Sullivan - Barwon Water

Kate Sullivan

General Manager of Strategy and Partnerships, Barwon Water

My job/work in a nutshell:

My role involves a lot of engagement with the community. This year we did two large engagements around our Pricing Submission and on the Barwon Downs Borefield

The best thing about what I do

It involves a lot of things about how we help to deliver regional prosperity, plan for the region’s future water and sewerage needs, improve how we manage our environment, and we continually look at ways we can better engage with our communities.

The most exciting or creative thing I saw in the this space in 2017

The finishing parts of the pricing submission deliberative panel. It was great to see a voluntary group of randomly selected participants working together. Most engagements I have worked on have groups of stakeholders that have strong views.

The most surprising thing that I learned in 2017

That I can shift into a totally different business (a water authority) and still add value with all I’ve learnt in state and local government… and surprisingly I’m doing as much engagement as I was in local government.

I’m a firm believer that most problems can be resolved by getting ALL the key players in a room together to work through the issues (this may involve doing this a number of times until they trust you will do what you say you will).
— Kate Sullivan

The most common problem I see in this space

Unresolved issues that have been sitting with the community for some time and misunderstanding / miscommunication around what we do. Some historical reticence about getting out there to work with the community to find solutions together.

One easy way to overcome this issue

Identify the issues we need to work on with the community, do some planning, engage assistance where required, get out there amongst it, then take time out to review what happened.

I’m a firm believer that most problems can be resolved by getting ALL the key players in a room together to work through the issues (this may involve doing this a number of times until they trust you will do what you say you will).

An emerging trend might be...

More use of the types of tools that occur in deliberative processes being used for difficult community sessions.

In 2018, I hope … 

That we continue to understand the importance of facilitation in everything we do…. I have found it to be an essential tool and core skill that I use in nearly everything I do.

Learn more about my work

Visit the Barwon Downs Borefield Licence Renewal your say site or the Barwon Water website. 


Kimbra White MosaicLab Victoria facilitator deliberation community engagement

Kimbra White

Co-founder and Director, MosaicLab

My job/work in a nutshell:

My primary role is planning and facilitating community engagement processes.  MosaicLab is fortunate to be working in the deliberative side of engagement and so a lot of our work is facilitating community juries and panels on complex issues for local and state governments.

The best thing about what I do

Helping people have meaningful conversations with other members of the community about (and become involved in) important issues and public decisions that will affect them - conversations which are likely to change how local and state governments make decisions. 

The most exciting or creative thing I saw in the this space in 2017

The Democracy in Geelong process, which was a democratic process around democracy itself.  It was exciting to be venturing into this space, and that the Minister for Local Government adopted almost all of the recommendations.   

In a recent session with Viv McWaters of Creative Facilitation I was reminded of the power of improvisational theatre and that some of the most effective and creative approaches to facilitation stem from concepts found within improv.   

The most surprising thing that I learned in 2017

I learn something from every engagement activity and workshop. What I’d like to continue to learn more about in 2018 is how to effectively bring people together when their views are highly polarised, they don't want to work together and there seems to be no way for them to understand each other.

We need public conversations on big issues like how we treat refugees and how we provide public housing for the increasing number of homeless people. 
— Kimbra White

The most common problem I see in this space

Governments not being prepared to trust their local communities. When they choose to engage well (and deliberatively) it can be transforming for both the community and them.  However, they often don't engage on difficult issues - they take them off the table and do nothing or make a decision that has not involved the community. 

We need public conversations on big issues like how we treat refugees and how we provide public housing for the increasing number of homeless people. 

One easy way to overcome this issue

I don’t think there is an easy way - we all need the courage to ask for and take part in these conversations.

An emerging trend might be...

There is currently a trend towards deliberative engagement in Victoria. Councils have shown willingness to step into deliberative processes over the last 4-5 years.

This has been encouraged by auditing of state and local government by the Victorian Auditor General and discussion around changes to the Local Government Act.  The exposure draft of the act contains some fundamentally important principles including that engagement should be representative of the community. This will be an interesting space to watch.

In 2018, I hope … 

That women keep talking out about the sexism they face in the workplace and the community. We need to make the world safer for women. That Australia find a way to treat refugees more humanly. That we increasingly talk about difficult issues in the Australian community.

Learn more about me and my work

Visit our MosaicLab's 'Our People' page and learn more about us