Trust in government is collapsing. A drop from from 45% to 37% last year, reflects our doubt in governments’ capacity to deal with the biggest challenges we face, such as climate change and inequality. It also demonstrates we are experiencing politics as something external to us, increasingly handed down by establishment elites from above.
What can councils do become trusted institutions in their communities?
1. SUPPORT PARTICIPATORY (COLLABORATIVE) NETWORKS
The first thing is to actively support the "thick" participatory collaborative networks that are emerging in our communities. On the edges of our market economy, harnessing the distributive nature of technology, people in communities are mobilising to solve our biggest challenges. They are creating community renewable energy, freelancer and tradie worker cooperatives, farmers markets, free universities, co-working spaces, collective wineries, open source software, technology and makers spaces ... These collaborative networks are establishing new public goods and human scale markets that do not drain local value out to multinationals. They are also generating the social solidarity and vision we need to rebuild participatory government from the bottom up.
2. A LITTLE LESS CONSULTATION, A LITTLE MORE ACTION
Councils need to find these networks, and replace some of their expensive and individualised community consultation, with methods that engage them in real problem-solving. Research has shown council consultation has little impact on decision making, and is neither representative nor deliberative. And yet, a layer of people in our communities want to be more active politically. They do not want to be part of government, but they do not want to be "sofa citizens" either. Let them help solve problems, with council staff as facilitators, bringing different knowledge, technical skill and strategies to the table. Solutions to our newest challenges lie with the people with the freshest public ideas.
3. UTILISE EXPERT CITIZENS
New engagement methods that mobilise citizen experts are working. Mexico City, for example, has created a human Laboratorio Para la Ciudad (Laboratory for the City), where expert citizens and government specialists come together to “hack” problems. The Lab famously recruited a large number of citizens and their mobile phones to map and fix their chaotic bus system. Here in Australia, we also have expert citizen's setting up models. For example, Sprout Hub, a cafe/co-working space model for growth areas, releases revenue back to the community as grants. The community votes on applications, activating them in local area decision-making in the process. There are many others with expertise in technology (such as Code for Australia), community investment (such as Neighborly), and collaborative business models (such as Mozilla, Mondragon or Noisy Ritual Winery) that foster people's participation. But we wont find them unless we look. And convince them government is the place for their ideas.
4. TALK STRAIGHT ABOUT CHANGE
The final thing councils can do is to be more courageous telling stories about a different future and its possibilities. New paths are opening up, and councils have the resources to bring rigor and leadership to debates about how alternatives can reduce inequality, protect our environment, and improve our communities. But we need strong leaders to deliver those stories. We need big narratives, told well. Research across Victorian councils last year showed residents think communication with them is poor. And governments currently have whole departments dedicated to keeping messages in the "sensible centre", where opinion is more important than evidence, and persuasive leadership is fading.
Councils must involve more, inspire more and challenge more to get our trust back.