Yarra Ranges Council approve revised Community Engagement Policy

Yarra Ranges Council has adopted a revised Community Engagement Policy. (On File 335071)

By Callum Ludwig

Yarra Ranges Council has approved a revised Community Engagement Policy at the Tuesday 9 July council meeting.

The Community Engagement Policy was first adopted in April 2021 and the new revisions were made following over 240 community engagement projects that have been undertaken by the Council since the original policy was implemented.

Starting the discussion, Lyster Ward Councillor Johanna Skelton asked a question to Executive Officer for Communications and Engagement Joanne Hammond regarding if there is any guidance in the Community Engagement Policy about when the Council decides to undertake an external review of an engagement project.

“We don’t have any specific projects in mind when it comes to evaluation, we’ll simply have a look at what’s going on, what is contentious or what has piqued the interest of the community and has created a great deal of feedback for us to make decisions around how we will evaluate,” she said.

“Some projects create more interest than others and we can’t always tell at the beginning of the project what that will be, but we will be looking at getting some external evaluation done to make sure that it’s as objective as we can make it.”

Yarra Ranges Council sought to update the Community Engagement Policy prior to the adoption of the new Council plan and the council elections in October, with the draft having been open for feedback from 27 March to 5 May this year.

Cr Skelton said she thinks it’s an excellent review of the existing community engagement policy.

“It’s right that we see how it was landing, make sure that it’s delivering on expectations,

I think throughout the six-week exhibition, we got really insightful and good feedback from the community that I can see how it’s improved the policy,” she said.

“I can see from the report that they did a very good deep dive around all different teams of council and saw how it landed in different parts,”

“Between the officers and the community, we’ve got a good list of proposed changes for us to look at on page 53 and 54 and to me, they all make sense and look like they will improve outcomes for communities.”

Prior to community feedback, these were some of the key changes implemented in the draft revised policy:

Updated to 2023 Council-approved version of the Acknowledgement of Country

Inclusion of a revision history table and administrative changes clause (to allow for changes without Council endorsement)

Inclusion of a clear definition and specific use of ‘Community Engagement’

Clarified the factors considered in Council decisions, including community engagement

Removed the list of suggested groups to engage with

In the ‘when we engage’ section, consolidated it into a list of times Council will and will not engage, rather than ‘will, may and will not’

Included an overarching statement that defines the deciding factors as ‘when there is/ is not a genuine opportunity for input to inform, change or influence a decision’

Removed the specific steps for planning engagement which can widely be found elsewhere but remain available internally

Removed example initiatives in the ‘Level of engagement’ subsection

New ‘Deciding the engagement approach’, ‘Deciding on the tools of engagement’ and ‘What does consistency look like’ subsections

A new section covering how Yarra Ranges Council will inform the community of engagement outcomes and evaluate the engagement performance

Addition of a new section with legislative context, such as the inclusion of the Gender Equality Act 2020 and other relevant legislation

Outline the relationship between the Council plan and community engagement as well as relevant Council policies like the Child Safety and Wellbeing Policy

General clarification and removal of broad or unclear statements eg: ‘changing something’

O’Shannassy Ward Councillor Jim Child said the revised policy really reflects the outcome from those community engagement pieces.

“I go back to the previous policy that Cr Skeleton referred to and the previous item we discussed here tonight was the waste issue, and when you looked at the waste management plan that we went out to the community with, it was probably one of the best buy-ins we had from our community, that process was really showed how we did that and we did it well,” he said.

“It really builds on that previous piece and it shows that we really take seriously the value of community engagement.”

Community feedback on the draft revised policy also resulted in Yarra Ranges Council including the role of communication to support community awareness of their chances to engage, commit to improving transparency regarding decisions on planning community engagement and resource allocation, include people experiencing homelessness as a cohort to consider when planning engagement and highlight the role within Council to continuously improve and train to deliver better outcomes for the community.

Billanook Councillor Tim Heenan said local government gets flak at times because some members of the general public think that they just go out there to tick the boxes.

“We all have understandings that certain things need to be done in local government but because the officers have gone much more in-depth this time, though of course there’s more to be done, I’m really supportive of the immense diversity of what we’ve got back so far,” he said.

“I think we forget, I’m sure the people around the room here don’t forget, but members of the community forget how big this Shire council really is, how much we have to take care of and the immense diversity of things that we have to take care of which are not just roads, rates and rubbish which is the old saying,”

“We need to find out what people want to say, what level of detail they want to give to us and try to understand what they’re saying to us.”