by Hailey Cooperrider
Client: City of Melbourne
Project Name: FutureMelbourne
The challenge: Public consultation
Collaboration scale: Melbourne-wide (1,000-100,000)
Public consultation is a regulatory process whereby input from affected members of the public is sought to ensure efficiency, transparency and public participation in decision-making on large-scale projects, planning or policy/law-making. Government bodies traditionally utilise methods of notification and consultation that seek out opinions of members of the public using requests for submissions, focus groups or surveys to gather feedback. These techniques are used as they are well-understood, easy to set up, deliver and have predictable turnaround times for data processing. This traditional notify-and-request-feedback style of public consultation often comes under attack for not providing the level of transparency and involvement intended - especially where methods are used which do not allow for a representative sample of the community.
Co-creating a public collaboration process
In 2007, the City of Melbourne decided to take a new approach to consultation on creating its City Plan and explore public collaboration as a more authentic, engaging and transparent strategy to involve the public in the planning process. Unsure where to start, the leadership contacted Mark Elliott on the basis of his recently published PhD thesis which offered a theory of scalable collaboration. The project started with conversations over coffee, building a vision for what might be possible by sharing ideas and latest thinking in collaborative government theory. This quickly evolved into a formalisation of the relationship and the creation of Collabforge, enabling Mark to partner with the City of Melbourne to reshape their planning consultation process.
Creating a shared mental model & internal buy-in
Before the City Council’s planning process could be re-engineered, it needed to be understood. Collabforge and the project team devoted the time necessary to build a solid shared map of the current system. This provided a foundation on which to establish where and how public collaboration may be possible and co-create an approach to best suit the climate and the desired outcomes. The approach they arrived at was ground-breaking: To open the Melbourne City Plan to the public and to not only invite, but encourage members of the public to directly edit the City Plan.
The team were excited and enthusiastic about the potential for the project to improve their processes and demonstrate a new valuable approach to public consultation. However, the idea was a significant departure from existing processes. This meant that when expanding the idea internally to enable delivery, various forms of resistance were encountered. Fortunately, having support from the highest levels in the council, and a strong strategic process map meant that ultimately the project gained support and moved forward with renewed momentum.
Wikipedia for a City Plan
To combine the standard plan development process with a public collaboration & consultation component, a relatively new technology (for the time) was utilised. Known as a ‘wiki’, this technology enabled an online hierarchically-organised and searchable document with open editing combined with an edit history, addition of comments/discussion and ability to print the multiple sections as a single ordered document. Utilised internally at first, when the public consultation segment of the planning process commenced, the City Plan wiki was made publicly available, and anyone who was willing to create a login had full rights to edit or comment on content.
During the public consultation period, 17 May to 14 June 2008, over seven thousand people visited the site. All contributions were reviewed by the project team to ensure the wide range of submitted ideas were organised, refined and incorporated appropriately.
While the city plan in a wiki was considered to be fairly high risk, the team was able to revert any changes that were deemed inappropriate and not in good nature using the built-in revision history instantly. The wiki was monitored 24/7 during the public engagement period, and no instances of untoward behaviour were encountered.
Melbourne City Council found that through taking a collaborative approach to the planning process, it was able to not only involve a larger cohort than by standard methods, but do so in a way that was authentic, transparent and through which the community felt heard. The project resulted in City of Melbourne winning the Planning Institute of Australia’s prestigious President’s Award. Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle commented:
“Future Melbourne has been the most ambitious community consultation project ever undertaken by the City of Melbourne and, indeed, by a local government organisation. The plan outlines the key goals and challenges for the city’s future. The extensive community engagement undertaken in the development process has ensured that it is a rich and robust plan that really represents the community’s vision for our city.”
The project team also contributed:
“Collabforge were integral to the success of the Future Melbourne project. As a result of their comprehensive hands-on approach to online community management, we were able to quickly identify, respond and shape conversations with the public in a manner that maximised community engagement whilst effectively minimising risk. Collabforge delivered a tailor-made approach to change management that operated from inception to project finalisation. Future Melbourne’s success can be measured by our recent win in the 2008 Victorian Awards for Planning Excellence, an achievement that would not have been possible without Collabforge.” — Future Melbourne Team, City of Melbourne
This project represented a world first and has generated a great deal of ongoing interest. It demonstrated the power the internet to provide a media to scale the collaboration of potentially large numbers of participants in the decision-making processes that affect their businesses and day-to-day lives.