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Can community consultations regain some authority through authenticity?

By Mark Randell - posted Thursday, 12 February 2004

After a decade in which every victim of trauma has quickly been addressed by a calm, cool and collected professional counsellor, the news has now been put about that this treatment may not, in fact, be the best one for those victims. It may be better for people to talk to someone they know—a colleague, a friend, family.

Paul Hogan was there first, in Crocodile Dundee. When told everyone in LA has a personal psychiatrist, he asks: “What, don’t they have any mates?”

Are we surprised? Well, I, for one, am not. It seems to me that there must be a sense of authenticity about these encounters if they are to mean anything. Authenticity is at the very heart of friendship, mateship, love, family life, and yes, community.


This is a point often forgotten in the sometimes-irrelevant exercise of "community consultation". The council officer — who does not live in the given area, and shares few of the values or experiences of the local community — arrives to "consult" the locals on the latest changes to the planning scheme. The locals have a view of their community, formed over some years living in the area, that generally goes: “We like it the way it is, and we don’t see why it should change, or why you should interfere with our territory. If you must do something, plant more trees.”

The council officer has been sent by the planning department to promote the latest changes as beneficial to community life and amenity. He or she doesn’t, however, know what it is like to live in this area — but has a range of pre-set options from which the community can choose.

He or she has little hope of conducting any meaningful "consultation". Most likely, the scheme will be discussed by the councillors — themselves often not resident in the given area — and a few nods given to the written submissions of the very few people who bothered to put pen to paper. The scheme will then be passed as written by the bureaucracy.

One of the questions that should be asked by councils, agencies and other organisations, then, is “How do we get authenticity into our consultations?”

Could I suggest that the current emphasis on "community consultation" needs some thinking about? In fact — at the risk of being heretical (or worse, ignored) — could I suggest that authenticity will not be achieved in consultations until the enterprises-that-be embrace the mantra of participation, not consultation.

Participation, compared to consultation, is a higher level of citizen involvement and influence. Think of the community as equal partners in the decision-making processes — for example, choosing the available options rather than choosing from a pre-selected range. Participation processes usually involve partnerships between the community and the relevant authority.


Achieving authenticity in a participation system is infinitely easier than in a consultation framework. Indeed, I would argue that authenticity is an "emergent" property of a participation system, whereas it fits with great difficulty onto a consultative framework (as seen in the above example).

"Consultation", in a participation system, is much more a matter of providing information to the community, and allowing community processes to ensure the information is digested, discussed and responded to. The involvement of council or agency officers is minimal, or should be. Authenticity is a product of the system, in that the information is debated by the community-at-large without prompts, guidance or involvement of outside authority personnel.

An example would be a "Precinct System" wherein community committees self-organise to discuss civic affairs. The consultative process in the above example would consist primarily of sending information to the precinct committees, with a request for a response. The resulting response would be "authentic" in the sense that it is the output of self-organised community committees with no agency representatives.

The "problem" of community consultation then becomes one of how to develop self-sustaining, self-organising community groups who have a desire to discuss affairs on which you would like advice. The difference between such processes and "advisory committees" is that the consulting agency does not even select the respondents! There are great management benefits in such an approach.

Developing a participation system requires a sustained focus on community processes rather than internal systems. It requires a much more "customer-focused" organisation (if I may lapse into the jargon of the marketplace).

In these times, that is surely a positive — even an authentic — approach.

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About the Author

Mark Randell is the Principal of Human Sciences, a community development consultancy based in Fremantle, WA. He has worked in the commercial, government and academic sectors.

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