In this age of "customers with service choices" (rather than "citizens with rights and responsibilities"), the municipal enterprise has fallen prey to managerialism – and the first duty of municipal officers is to be professional.
The trouble – especially for citizen participation systems – is that citizens who wish to participate in the municipal enterprise (e.g. have a say in local government) are also required to "be professional".
Generally, this means that citizens are given a set (short) period of time to "make submissions" on proposals generated by the local council, and, in effort to make an impact on the council, should demonstrate a high level of research in the background to the submission, and a well laid-out and graphically superior submission document. While submissions can be simple handwritten notes, it is in reality questionable whether such missives generate the required level of attention. Officers will tell you that all are equal, but I, for one, remain unconvinced.
Now, the problem with requiring "professionalism" from citizens is that they are, in general, not. Not, that is, by the standards of the day – which, sad to say, are largely based on exalting form over function, and making use of proprietary software packages from a large company who shall remain nameless. Even tenders for consultancies in the area of community these days ask for submissions in a certain proprietary format. Woe betide those who use some other format – they get no consideration whatsoever, even if their ideas are more than half decent.
Citizens are not alone in generally rejecting the notion that "professionalism" can be equated with the "presentation package" you use. Those smart cookies, academics, have long eschewed the use of such packages, preferring hand-written transparencies to flash presentations. Preferring, that is, function over form, the message over the medium.
Citizens have, in general, several problems with living up to the requirement of councils that they "be professional". First, making submissions to local governments is not their "day job" (where they may very well "be professional", but not necessarily), and requires vast expense of after-hours effort and skills other than their day job (e.g. facilitating meetings). Second, unless one citizen in a group has access to the latest and greatest software, they may be simply unable to match the "form" requirement(s). Third, the difficulties of getting a community to give a consensus decision in the time periods allocated may simply prevent a sensible submission being made. The wheels of government cannot be slowed; "progress" apparently requires movement.
Councils – indeed, commercial enterprises everywhere – seem to have taken Marshall McLuhan greatly to heart: The medium is indeed the message, in their eyes. Yet McLuhan’s pithy quote was sarcastic in intention, and the message should be independent of the delivery medium. "Getting the message across" to your local council is difficult to the extent that they follow the McLuhan line.
There would appear to be some simple solutions to the problems of form and function — correct me, someone, if I am wrong. For instance, it would seem sensible to take all submissions (of any format, from any medium) and convert them to a standard format in which form (glossiness, nice headings, swish artwork, and font selection) is ignored or removed. This should be done "blind": The person who evaluates the submissions should not see the originals, only the final output – of a flat rendition of the salient ideas and comments. This would equalise input in terms of form emphasising function.
In fact, if such a solution to the form/function nexus was adopted, it would then be sensible to tell citizens not to waste their time on fancy submissions. The preferred format would be plain text, since this is easiest to incorporate in the final output document. This would save countless volunteer hours spent in "beautifying" submissions.
I offer this solution to councils Australia-wide, for free. Just tell me (Mark.Randell@onlineopinion.com.au) if you intend to pursue it, or if you are already doing it, or if I’m barking mad.
There is no deadline on submissions. Just do it simply—without the fancy font. Thanks.