City of Mitcham Deliberative panel

Community led design in Mitcham South Australia

Hawthorndene Oval is located in a leafy, natural setting in the Adelaide Hills. It is home to a cricket oval, modest public toilets and a beautiful stand of native vegetation.

Over the last six years the resident cricket club – the Coromandel Ramblers have been seeking approval for new club rooms and facilities. They had received considerable commitments in funds from state and federal funding bodies for the project, however, there some opposition to the proposal was emerging.

The City of Mitcham (responsible for approving or not approving the proposal), were concerned by the level of tension in the community about the proposal and wanted to provide an opportunity for the community to participate in the decision-making process in a meaningful way. There were clearly areas of significant misunderstanding/ lack of clarity about the proposal amongst the general community inlcuding a lack of trust and transparency in how Council were approaching the decision.

The approach

DemocracyCo were engaged to design and deliver a deliberative process to allow a sample of the community to provide well thought through and informed advice to Council.

The process began with a Community Survey so that everyone who wanted to have a say was able to. democracyCo then recruited a diverse sample of approximately 15 community members and 6 stakeholders to establish a working group. The stakeholders included representatives from the cricket club, who were balanced with equal numbers of stakeholders who had expressed concern about the proposal in some way.

Recruitment for this project was critically important to ensure thatthe views of the wider community were examined and represented in the recommendations presented back to council, getting beyond the deeply interested and affected community members. Knowing the strength of conviction held by the stakeholders for their respective views, democracyCo deliberately recruited a sample allowing the 15 community members to play an important role in tempering the heat and ensuring that balance was a hallmark of the deliberations – always with the ‘greater good’ in mind.

The working group met for four sessions over two weekends, giving them the opportunity to gain information, ask questions and to raise concerns. They then worked through their aired issues and generated solutions together, attempting to reach consensus on four key elements of the proposal and four important future uses for the oval (connection, play for all ages, refuge and balance).

“…. I hope that Council continues to use this avenue to consult with their ratepayers. A special acknowledgement to Emily for her role as facilitator of this process, especially bringing the group together from the second Friday night to the final day on Sunday. This meant that the group was able to successfully work through and create our recommendations to Council. It was also great to be able to speak to Council members after our final presentation. I look forward to watching how the council uses our recommendations….”
Community Participant

“I was extremely impressed with both the program design and the facilitation of a diverse and divided group of community members. This was not an easy engagement to undertake as there were polarised and opposing views….We have learned that our community appreciate being able to be included in a deeper level of engagement – this process assisted members of the Working Group to share ideas, ask questions and work towards consensus. We have learned that undertaking community engagement needs to happen sooner before misinformation takes hold and uncertainty grows. DemocracyCo and Emily Jenke were invaluable in their unbiased and professional facilitation of this community engagement process.”
Client, Mitcham Council

Managing tension
The workshops were tough for many of the participants, with strong, contrary opinions sometimes dominating the conversation. The design of the process, informed by a thorough understanding of the context and history of the project and the outcomes that Council wanted to achieve was critical in ensuring that despite the difficult atmosphere, we were able to move participants forward and find common ground on many of the issues that had been sticking points before the workshops. One particularly important part of the design was at the outset, that the group agreed upon the behaviours that were needed for a successful deliberation. This enabled democracyCo and the participants to recall them during the process when tensions were high and behaviours were not meeting these expectations.
The outcome
A comprehensive report written by the group in the room was presented to Council by a group of the participants at the end of the workshop series. The feedback reflected the key values that community placed on the use of the Hawthorndene Oval, the potential benefits and tensions of building the new clubrooms and facilities, and ideas for how the tensions could be resolved. This report highlighted areas where the community could demonstrate broad support and to what degree, as well as issues which either could not be resolved, or which the group did not support. Council have listened to this input from the community and the plans for the development have been amended to seek a better balance and reflect community aspirations for the oval.
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