Deliberation in Victoria – The new Victorian Local Government Act

Hands made of people reaching towards each other

With Kimbra White, Director, MosaicLab

The new Victorian Local Government Act has exciting news for the engagement world

Legislation is not something that usually creates excitement in our field but the news from Victoria is game changing.

A new Local Government Act (the Act) came into being on 24 March this year and with it provisions relating to community engagement. The even better news is that the Act is a principles based Act. The old Act had a requirement for certain matters to be ‘placed on exhibition’ for 21 days notice to allow for submissions. The new Act is very different in that it requires councils to adopt and maintain a community engagement policy and that this policy must give effect to a list of principles that have been provided in the Act. These principles and the requirements for how a community engagement policy must be developed align very closely with the IAP2 core values.

And even further the community engagement policy must include “deliberative engagement practices” and that these deliberative practices be applied to the development of the Community Vision, the Council Plan, Financial Plan and Asset Plan; high level plans required by the new Act.

Most engagement practitioners and councils in Victoria well understand IAP2 core values and these are usually well reflected in engagement policies and toolkits that many councils have in place, so implementing the engagement principles in the Act should not be difficult.

What is likely to be difficult for many councils is understanding what ‘deliberative practices’ mean – what will councils have to do differently to meet these provisions of the Act and for small rural councils there will be a concern about the cost of deliberation?

For councils who have undertaken deliberation and the engagement practitioners who specialise in deliberation know that there are a set of commonly accepted principles for deliberation that will define what it is and how deliberation takes place.

The OECD has recently documented 12 different forms of deliberation (reference below) though it notes that the most common form is a citizens’ jury. Based on its database of just under 300 deliberations, it describes a jury as being randomly sampled and typically having 35 members who meet for an average of four full days. This is the most common form in Australia though they are given a variety of names including people’s panel and community panel.

Three fundamental differences between deliberation and more standard engagement based on these principles are:

  • Deliberation – an expectation that the deliberating group comes to judgement, they consider information, weigh up options and come to collective agreement on a set of recommendations. In other forms of engagement, you are often only getting to the ideas or options stage – often a set of individual views that are aggregated to understand the range of views.
  • Representative – deliberation requires that the deliberating group is representative of the whole community and this is usually achieved through an independent random stratified process to match the demographics of the area. In Australia the two main providers for undertaking recruitment are Deliberately Engaging and the Sortition Foundation. Some facilitators may also provide this service.
  • Influential – there is an expectation that decision makers provide an up front promise of influence – that they will give weight to the recommendations to the greatest extent possible, and if a recommendation is not implemented that they will explain why.

There are a variety of resources available for councils and other organisations interested in deliberation. Here are three free guides or handbooks.

A Short Guide to Deliberative Engagement for Victorian Councils – MosaicLab

MosaicLab has produced a short guide specifically for Victorian Councils on implementing the deliberative elements of the new Act. It covers the principles of deliberation, provides a description of deliberation, a list of key decisions that an organisation needs to make in starting and during a deliberative process and a key section on how to scale deliberation up and down based on the principles. It is a practical guide and sets out the roles and  responsibilities of all parties (councillors, council staff, interest groups, process designer, facilitators, independent steering committees and recruiters) and information about how to deliberate in an online environment. An electronic copy is in the free downloads on the MosaicLab website or here. Contact MosaicLab if you would like a hard copy version to share with councillors or other staff at your council.

Enabling National Initiatives to Take Democracy Beyond Elections & numerous other resources – new Democracy Foundation (nDF)

The newDemocracy Foundation has developed a deliberation handbook for deliberation for a United Nations project. They also have a multitude of resources on their website about deliberation including the overall process design for all the deliberations they have sponsored. The hand book has sections for politicians, department heads and project owners and project teams and facilitators. It also provides case studies from around the world.

View a copy here.

Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions – Catch the Deliberative Wave – OECD

This is a comprehensive analysis of deliberation around the globe and includes the principles of deliberation, documents 12 different forms of deliberation global trends in deliberation and provides a data base of just under 300 deliberative projects.

Available on the nDF website and here.

Kimbra White
Director, MosaicLab