Most Council meetings see a public gallery that is but sparsely populated. A notable exception was yesterday’s meeting. Your humble scribe arrived twenty minutes before the start of formal business to find the public gallery packed, literally, to overflowing. In the end I attended a marathon session that lasted over four hours punctuated, mercifully, by the thought-fullness of the Chair as she proposed regular bio-breaks. The matter that attracted this significant constituency of concerned citizens was the recently published Final Draft of the Recreation and Open Space Strategy (the ROSS) 2018. This is a mighty document. In using the term “mighty” I refer to its heft rather than to its content. The strategy (and it is not, in fact, a strategy at all) weighs in at 200 pages. It is not surprising that people are interested in a ROSS. The scope of this document is enormous; it covers recreations from fishing to gardening to bushwalking to cycling. Open spaces include beaches, footpaths, coastal reserves, foreshores and paths. But the scope is not merely recreational; it also covers every location in the Shire. The development of a ROSS is a big undertaking. It is a shame that the result of the process so far can only be described as not very good. Perhaps it is not surprising that our Council, or I should say that the Council’s administration, managed to get this so wrong. The draft of the document that was released for public exhibition was pretty much incomprehensible. It is an example of a consultant’s document whose aim appears to be more to demonstrate that they have collected information than it is to provide a readable and engaging exposition of the conclusions to be drawn from an analysis of that information. The revised document is little better than its predecessor. It is always easy to blame the consultants. I know this. In this case they were briefed by an administration that had not thought through the implications of the scope of what was being attempted. The principal implication of undertaking a recreation and open space strategy is bound to be the need to consult with a wide range of stakeholders. A Council meeting starts with the opportunity for members of the public to provide input to the Council on matters relating to items that are on the agenda. The Beagle had understood that there were to be sixteen such submissions; in the event there were one or two fewer than this. Each member of the public may speak for 5 minutes and Council may decide to allow an additional 3 minutes. In my experience, brief though it is, Council always agrees to the extra 3 minutes. Indeed, it would be difficult for it not to so agree lest it is subsequently accused of suppressing some citizen’s right to be heard. At eight minutes a piece, sixteen presentations would amount to well over two hours. And so it proved. In the end the resolution that had been published with the meeting agenda was modified to make it clear that further consultation was needed with stakeholders on a significant number of the strategy’s recommendations. Years ago I recall a comment about a strategy that had been produced for the UK defence force. A staff officer was less than complimentary when he commented that it was “a strategy that recommended a way forward based on a raft of further strategies”. What was agreed yesterday by Council is a strategy that recommends a way forward based on a raft of Master Plans. In the 1980s a “master plan” was a euphemism for strategy. In short, the strategy document is a failure because it is not a proper strategy. Why would this be?
During the meeting the Director Community, Arts and Recreation Services, Kathy Arthur, explained the approach to consultation that had been followed during the development of the ROSS. I made notes as she spoke. In the margin of my notebook I wrote that “this is the ascendancy of method over practice”. It should have been quite clear to Council staff that the development of a ROSS would be something that would require considerable community engagement. The key word is engagement. Centuries ago the Town Crier would wander through the streets ringing his bell: hear ye! hear ye! he would cry. If you were in earshot you would learn the news. The only technology available was the bell to attract people’s attention. Then, as he shouted, the information was pushed. Today we have other means to attract our attention. The Town Crier was at best disseminating information: dissemination is a one-way process. Sending out press releases, calling for submissions and putting information on a website is dissemination. Consultation is about dialogue, about consultation and about engagement. It’s hard. It takes time.
Sometimes consultation doesn’t get what you want. Sometimes consultation does not lead to consensus. In the cases where consultation does not lead to a result or to consensus then a decision has to be taken which, by definition, will not satisfy everyone. That is all what you learn in Communication 101. That little, if any, thought was given to the need for extensive consultation (which term by my definition includes engagement) is evidenced in the ROSS itself. The paper is described as a strategy yet there is little or no strategy to be found. The Executive Summary tells me that there is a strategy and that its intent is to realise the vision that “Eurobodalla has an open space network that provides safe and connected places and spaces that build on our sense of community and offer a great quality of life for all ages.” I’m not sure that many would disagree with that statement; but where is the strategy?
On page 21 I find that the Recreation and Open Space Strategy 2017 (note the cover says it’s 2018 but we’ll let that proofing error pass) is “a strategic framework for the management, provision and development of recreation, open space and sport in Eurobodalla”. So, and I will keep nit-picking here, the strategy is not a strategy; it is a framework. Now, this is an important difference to a consultant and it should be an important difference to the way consultation is carried out. It is at page 24 that I find a set of “fundamental directions” which I take to be a strategy, but which instead is a mixture of strategy statements and implementation principles. The paper then contains some useful analysis and proposes a large number of actions. These include, for example, N26 on page 111 which says, “enlarge and upgrade the Malua Bay Community Centre”. That may or may not be a good thing to do but it is not something that should appear in a strategy. It’s part of a plan. Any consultant worth his or her salt will tell you that you should agree a strategy before you develop a plan. Council’s administrative staff should have been aware of that. Separating a strategy from its implementation enables decisions to be made about how to implement the strategy before you decide what to implement. So, it is valid for a strategy to say that we need to look at the suitability and appropriateness of community halls in the Shire. One can consult about that as a strategic statement, and take detailed inputs, before developing the detailed actions to implement that strategic objective. For it is in the detail that the devil is found and that was obvious from the submissions made to Council yesterday. The strategy should have been developed as a piece of work separate from its implementation plan. This is not, by the way, the fault of your Councillors. While they are ultimately responsible they delegate that responsibility to their administrative staff. They then act on advice that they receive. The problem is that if that advice is sub-optimal then the results will be sub-optimal. That is the case here. The approach to the ROSS was not well-thought through and the dissatisfaction and concerns of the community were pretty obvious. In the end your Councillors sat through four hours of meeting. Only two, apart from the Chair, made any significant input: Pat McGinlay and Anthony Mayne. The others may have made inputs, but I can’t recall any associated content. At one point Anthony Mayne, who in his other life knows about these things, suggested that some particular matter was a “learning opportunity” for Council. The whole matter of the ROSS is a learning matter for Council. The question is whether they want to learn that true change comes through carefully planned and carefully executed stakeholder engagement.