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Bringing the community into local government: 4 things we learned from a expert citizen hack

August 20, 2017

I recently wrote about the four things local government should do about collapsing trust in government. This included replacing some of their expensive community consultation with methods that bring citizen experts into problem-solving. Last night we tried it out in our inaugural, and highly engaging, “Arts Hack”.

 

Here’s the four things we learned:

 

1. THE FIRST RULE OF ARTS HACK …

 

The first thing was the importance of putting real problems on the table.  For the Arts Hack this was how we could re-vision a large and underutilized theatre and community facility. Teams of community experts were asked to wander the facility to consider what it should be to best serve the community.  There were entrepreneurs in the industrial kitchen, planners out on the roads examining connection, venue and arts business experts in every theatre and space.  Teams worked their ideas up on maps of the building and surrounds, and made innovative and inspiring pitches to four of our Councillors.

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2.  UTILISE CITIZEN EXPERTS

 

The second thing we learned is that engagement methods that mobilise citizen experts work. There is a layer of people in our communities that want to be more active with their governments. We used our networks to find the entrepreneurs, venue managers, economists, artists, planners who are trying to do things collaboratively. They not only came up with workable ideas, they considered how broader community engagement could be built into a test and retest model of the facility’s development. They understood the importance of their expertise, but saw the limits of its representativeness, and solved that.

 

 

3.  GET OUT OF TOWN (HALL)

 

What worked for Arts Hack was getting out of a bureaucratic setting, and using people’s time in a short, sharp hack (rather than committee meeting, hearing or all day forum). Getting out of the town hall fostered a feeling of openness and possibility. It also fostered a certain sense of ownership. There were people in the room that likely will stay involved and possibly even become the driving force for change that every visionary, future oriented project needs.

 

 

4.  IDEAS INSPIRE CHANGE FOR OUR COMMUNITY

 

The final thing we learned was this facility could contribute enormously to community life if we think long term. To make it its best, citizen experts argued it needs an artistic vision.  Suggestions included visual arts, experimental music, or a multicultural program, given we are one of the most diverse areas in Melbourne.  This vision would in turn determine anchor tenancies, artists residencies, social enterprises, start-ups offices, co-working, galleries, use of the theatre, and program of activity to activate the space night and day (markets, music, kids classes, etc).  It was suggested that community demand should be tested and re-tested over a period of time, a clever form of community engagement. 

 

Outside the building our experts argued to improve connectivity and bring users in.  These include an iconic laneway makers/retail/coffee arcade connecting the facility to the train station (opportunistically created as the train station is elevated), a sculpture park, a ‘Darebin Tan’ running track, walking and cycling links, a gateway mural to signal the precinct, an Indigenous seasons garden, and a shipping container coffee shop that could be activated when things were going on in the precinct. The opportunity to sell off the large car park out front was also discussed to bring in more residents and ground level commercial spaces, while retaining a couple of stories for car parking and artists residencies.

 

Our active community has ideas.  If bought into local government they can solve all kinds of challenges.  The striking thing was how right it felt that these people should be part of government.  And, what a fantastic place this is to start a real community engagement.

 

 

 

 

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JEANETTE POPE

Freelance Strategy, Policy, Research