Getting the community involved with the design of their local park and playground is a great concept.
It’s a positive step forward to include input from local community members on the facilities provided for their enjoyment. It creates a sense of ownership and often results in the new facilities being taken better care of by the people in the immediate area.
As you know, proper community consultation takes personal time, extra effort and a commitment to truly engage face to face, with the local people that will be affected by the decisions made. This is not something that can be done purely online without the risk of a false outcome. Reliance on online polls alone can result in decisions that are not necessarily in the best interests of the community.
And asking the community to make the final decision on the exact designs (rather than at a master planning level) is where it can go wrong.
A couple of examples from recent times:
- A major playground project ($400k) in regional Australia was awarded to an overseas supplier through “online Community Consultation voting” with the majority of votes for the final playground design coming from Brisbane, Sydney and Northern Europe on a voting heatmap provided by the polling platform. The deciding votes did not even originate in the area where the playground was built! How can that be right and fair for the people of that region?
- Another local council in southern regional Australia placed orders for major playground works ($500k) with the equipment from an overseas supplier decided on the basis of 2% points votes of difference via online polling between the final design options shown to the community! So the council’s staff, with experience in pragmatic decision making around longevity of the product, true play value, Australian made content, ongoing service and whole-of-life costs of an imported product, were sidelined on the basis of 2% of extra votes from the (hopefully) local community with no experience in any of these things!
This is not about removing the normal competitive process. We respect and welcome good competition. It helps all of us to improve what we offer the children and families that use our playgrounds and it means we keep raising the bar for the solutions we provide to our clients. In fact, community consultation done well should result in a more competitive offering and a better outcome for the community.
There was no intentional wrongdoing on the part of the councils involved. They have tried to do the right thing by involving the community. It’s simply the method and timing that was at fault.
So what is the right way to do Community Consultation?
More on this later but in a broad sense we advocate 3 basic principles for a good outcome with the Community Consultation process:
- Time it right – ask the community to get involved early when the project is at the master planning and concept stage. Use the early feedback to give direction to the rest of the process (“Yes, we need a playground that caters for XX age groups and provides XX types of play”) and then look after the finer details (price, final design and inclusions etc) via the normal tried, tested and safely audited procurement processes.
- Keep it local – insist on local input only (street surveys and pop-up display booths in the area, or hand delivered flyers to the community with a response form) to avoid unethical activities of people or suppliers that may try to unfairly influence the outcome. So far, no digital survey platform can guarantee a secure voting system that prevents outsiders from voting for their preferred outcome. Asking for a postcode or home address in the online poll is easily sidestepped with false details and even checking IP addresses can be thwarted through the use of proxy servers to change IP addresses randomly.
- Own the process – if you are the purchaser of the new assets we firmly believe you need to reserve the right to make the final decision in the best interests of the community or future users. This is why councils and other similar organisations have trained people looking after projects like this. Ethical suppliers will always support this practice as it results in better outcomes for all.
Keep an eye out for our complete guide on Principles of Effective Community Consultation to be released soon.
To get in touch with our team click here.