The most oft used phrase by council when it comes to justifying its decisions is that the issue has undergone ‘extensive community consultation’. Yes, there is Community Voice, and yes, there is Have Your Say, and yes, notices are up on council’s website and at times letters are posted to residents. But is this enough, or is it merely fulfilling the legal obligations and/or setting the groundwork so that the claim that ‘extensive community consultation’ has occurred is more tenable?

All of the above sounds great. Council admittedly has no control on how many residents decide to respond to the surveys, questionnaires, or even read the associated information. Which begs the question of why residents are generally so reticent to become involved. Our response to this query is:

  • Residents do not believe that their views will carry much weight in the final decision
  • Residents are not provided with enough information to assist in forming a view
  • Questions asked are often nothing more than Dorothy Dixers, or simply ambiguous so that valid interpretations become impossible
  • Council’s reporting of their ‘consultations’ is skewed, methodologically unsound and far from objective

We will go through some of the above providing examples that clearly illustrate our concerns with the way in which this council conducts its ‘consultations’ and how poorly the results are reported.

A perfect example is the recent Community Voice survey on the planning department. Council states that its objective in running this survey was:

In November 2018, we asked Community Voice members these same questions to identify aspects of Urban Planning that could be improved for the residents of Glen Eira.  

We wanted to know how far we’d come since implementing some changes following the last survey and improve our services to the community by determining where we could offer additional information or clarify processes. We have included results from 2018 in our graphs for comparison.

So this is largely supposed to be a comparative analysis of ‘progress’ and improvement of process over the past two years by the Urban Planning Department. Yet of the stated 193 responses we have no idea how many of the respondents were the same ones who filled in the 2018 survey, or are these 193 responses from entirely different residents? If improvement is to be accurately gauged, then having a clear and statistical overview of this component is essential. It would also be necessary to provide data that compares the number of applicant versus objector responses in 2018 compared to 2020. None of this has been done yet council is quite willing to conclude:

More than 32% of participants who had engaged with the Urban Planning team as an objector or supporter of a planning application indicated:

– They were ‘very satisfied’ or ‘satisfied by the availability of information on the application they objected to or supported (58%, a jump of 12% from 2018).

– They were ‘very dissatisfied’ or ‘dissatisfied’ with the support provided by Council when submitting an objection or support (38%, down by 4% from 2018).

– They were ‘very satisfied’ or ‘satisfied’ with the overall outcome of the application they objected to or supported (50%, down by 5% from 2018).

We’ve highlighted the above in order to point out how poorly questions and the definitions have been concocted, which must inevitably call into question the validity of the results.

Fair enough that the survey includes separate questions for applicants and objectors. Yet the full definition for the latter was:

if ‘yes, as an objector or supporter of a planning permit application’) Could you tell us how satisfied you were/are with the following elements of the objection process? If you have made a number of objections or supports, please consider your most recent objection/support when answering this question

Not only is this definition potentially contradictory, but ultimately very confusing. Yes, objectors can support a final decision on a planning application. But that’s only after the decision has been made – either by officers or councillors. They remain objectors to the application first off.  Yet the above phrasing does not make this clear and hence could also be answered by developers in favour of an application.

Other questions are equally ambiguous and hence their value needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt. For example here’s a screen dump of one question:

The question includes the word ‘expects’. How this was interpreted by respondents is anyone’s guess. Some objectors may ‘expect’ council to grant a permit given the rate of overdevelopment that has occurred in Glen Eira and council’s track record in recommending permits. But it may not be what they want! Furthermore, we have no idea as to the split of responses. How many were from objectors and how many from applicants?  In the end, does this question tell us anything useful about the Planning Department and how it might be improved?

Interestingly, the vast majority of responses to many of the questions simply clicked the ‘Don’t know’ box. What conclusions can and should be drawn from this? Considering that the stated results of ‘Don’t know’ were also very high in 2018, then how well has council addressed the issue with its purported but unnamed ‘changes’?

Finally, we note that publishing percentages alone as question responses is useless and misleading. 80% of 100 responses is certainly far more than 99% of 50 responses.

If council is sincere in wanting to improve its communication/consultation processes, especially in planning, then it needs to address the following:

  • Create questions that are clear and not open to various interpretations
  • Provide reports that include both percentages and numerics
  • Provide sufficient information so that respondents/residents have a clear idea of all pros and cons (including cost)
  • Call on community expertise to vet questions and to ensure their legitimacy

We’ve uploaded the full Community Voice report HERE. Council is currently also ‘consulting’ on its Community Engagement strategy. You may submit your thoughts via this link: https://www.haveyoursaygleneira.com.au/engaging-glen-eira