Penrith City Council is facing the challenge of balancing increasing infrastructure and service needs with shrinking resources and budget cuts in the Australian centre. In 2015, the council convened its first community panel to ask 34 local citizens how to approach the issue.
Problems and Purpose
Penrith City Council is an expanding local government area in Western Sydney. Technically a centre, Penrith's population and cultural diversity is growing; it is an 'up and coming' metropolitan centre. Like most councils in New South Wales however, Penrith is faced with shrinking budgets and an inability to cope with the amount of infrastructure investment needed. The 2015/16 budget is $237m (AUD), but with almost $300m of infrastructure needs in the long term. With this in mind, the Penrith community panel was asked to address the following:
What local services and infrastructure do we need in Penrith?
What should we do and to what level of quality, and how should we pay for it?
Background History and Context
Penrith has a population of 194,000 people and is home to many young people, and an increasing proportion of older people. The area is becoming more culturally diverse, with the top five languages being Arabic, Filipino/Tagalog, Italian, Maltese and Hindi. The city also has the third highest proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents in the state. The population of Penrith is predicted to continue growing, bringing with it new opportunities but also challenges: more housing, more employment opportunities and greater demand for council services and infrastructure.
Prior to the community panel commencing in September 2015, the council had already engaged with the Penrith community through the community satisfaction survey. This showed that infrastructure was one of the top concerns or priorities for local residents. However, the survey results did not cover what the community would be willing to spend on services and infrastrcuture, or how they would prioritise spending. So whilst the survey gave council a good indication of what matters to people in Penrith, it could not provide guidance on how to achieve this. One of the aims of the community panel was to do just that.
In 2014, Penrith council began a review of their capacity and financial sustainability, under the umbrella of New South Wales state government's local government reform program, Fit for the Future. The review acknowledged that although the council is 'in a good position to continue with current activities, we do not currently have the capacity to undertake major projects or absorb possible financial challenges should they occur' (Penrith City Council 2015, p15).
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Penrith community panel process was convened and funded by Penrith council.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The community panel was drawn from an initial random sample of 5,000 Penrith residents. Following this a sample of 35 citizens representative of the wider community was selected. The selection process was organised by the newDemocracy Foundation, an independent research organisation.
Methods and Tools Used
This initiative used a citizens' jury, broadly defined as a small group of randomly-selected individuals who come together to deliberate on an issue after hearing from experts in order to provide recommendations on future action for decision-makers.  The deliberative democratic process is intended to result in consensus.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The panel met six times over four months, totaling over 48 hours of deliberations. When the initiative was first announced in July 2015, local media covered the process and there appeared to be a good deal of interest from the Penrith community (Penrith Press 2015). Residents were encouraged to make submissions to the jury with their ideas on local priorities and 14 community submissions were received, from organisations including sports clubs, high schools and housing associations.
In addition to this, the panel also heard from council staff and experts and were able to request additional information from council throughout the process. The community panel followed a citizens' jury format and proceed in six stages (Penrith City Council 2015, p16):
- Welcome and introduction to the topic and process
- Focus - narrowing things down
- Reflect, discuss, deliberate
- Consensus session and finalisation of the draft report and recommendations
- Final deliberation
One jury member also wrote a blog post our the experience of deliberation, which gives a succinct insight into the process:
"We started with the basics....
What the council can control. There are a lot of infrastructure issues that are actually managed by the State Government. Mulgoa Road for example is the bain of every Penrith drivers existence, it is also a state road. Although not directly within the councils legislation we chose to encourage the council to advocate for issues governed by state such as these. For us, “it’s a state issue” was never going to be a final answer.
We invited councillors and council staff to join us then questioned them for information. We were told we could have access to most things we required and anything they didn’t have they would get.
We lugged folders full of information to every meeting.
We read submissions from the public.
We stuck dots on maps to identify key areas.
We wrote on post it notes.
We wrote on A4 paper.
We wrote on butcher paper.
We invited more speakers.
We asked for more documents.
Basically if it had been written we read it and if it was worth discussing we discussed it.
We developed a criteria for which recommendations had to meet to be considered for part of our submission. We created categories into which each recommendation would fall under. We then prioritised these recommendations, suggested a service level and set a time frame." (Portman 2016)
The six jury sessions were hosted in different parts of the Penrith area in order to increase the jury's profile across the city, and to expose jurors to different areas. The process was facilitated by newDemocracy Foundation and an independent facilitator, Grace Leotta. Both are independent from Penrith council and each other.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The jury produced a 37 page report outlining 'the city we want'. The report was presented to Penrith council in February 2016. Prior to the panel commencing, the council had promised to meet with panel members in person to discuss their recommendations, and to implement as many as possible. However, the council still had the final decision.
The comprehensive report details key priorities for the panel members and covers getting around the city, health and community spirit; income and expenditure; jobs close to home; the environment; planning for future growth; and safe and vibrant places.
The community panel was praised by the Mayor of Penrith for their committment and recommendations. As of May 2016, there is no document that clearly outlines the council's uptake or otherwise of the community panel's recommendations.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Two panel members have written about their experience of the Penrith community panel. One panellist, Gulcin, was surprised at 'how complex the workings of the council are - the many issues, rules, regulations, and layers of other governing bodies they need to comply with' and that 'much of what the community wanted has already been identified by council'. The latter point was also iterated in the panel's final report, which notes that many of the initiatives suggested by the panel were already being implemented by the council. In response to this the panel recommended:
"increased promotion via effective communication to the residents of Penrith City to ensure the residents and rate payers of Penrith Local Government Area are aware of the work the Council is achieving. We also encourage Penrith City Council to better celebrate their achievements among the broader Community, in addition to improving the advertising of Penrith as a city as the place to be. The Community Panel wishes to note that we have made recommendations in good faith for Council to implement to the best of their ability and control. We would also encourage Penrith City Council to maintain a Community Panel as part of the broader Community consultation process to encourage Community involvement in event planning and business initiative"
It is worth noting that this observation is not unheard of with citizens' jury processes in Australia; a Sydney nightlife citizens' jury also recommended measures that were already in place with council. This raises the question of whether the panel has been provided with sufficient information on existing council services - or, as the panel themselves state - that the council could do more to highlight their achievements and the services they provide. Panel members in this video of the process also mentioned their surprise at the number of services that the council provides and the level of complexity involved.
Penrith City Council (2015) Penrith Community Panel Panellist Information Pack [online], available at: http://yoursaypenrith.com.au/community-panel
Portman, K. (2016) Penrith Community Panel, The Westies [blog], 24 Feb 2016, available at: http://www.thewesties.com.au/penrith-community-panel/
newDemocracy Foundation (organised process) & press coverage: http://www.newdemocracy.com.au/ndf-work/276-penrith-city-community-panel
Penrith City Council (all documents and submissions received/requested by the panel): http://yoursaypenrith.com.au/community-panel