A government-led engagement process involving community surveys, stakeholder workshops, and a 1-day deliberative event. Officials offered six options for bridge construction and participants were asked for their feedback. The engagement had no apparent effect on policy makers.
Problems and Purpose
The Fremantle Traffic Bridge was constructed in 1939 and connects Fremantle to metropolitian Perth in Western Australia. It was last upgraded in 1974 and by 2006 its condition had detetoriated considerably, requiring either extensive upgrade or complete reconstruction. Through Main Roads WA, the state government established a broad community engagement process to decide the future of the bridge.
Six options were presented to the community. The aim of the process was to identify the public's views on the six options offered. The options were:
- Repair and widen
- New bridge, retain old bridge for heritage
- New statement bridge, retain old bridge for heritage
- New bridge, retain old bridge for cyclists/pedestrians
- New bridge, retain old bridge
Background History and Context
The Fremantle Bridge is an important traffic link to the area. Due its deteriorated condition in 2006, several safety and engineering concerns needed to be dealt with, including the structural integrity and road user safety along with a a low level of river clearance. Alongside safety concerns, the bridge is also listed as a site of heritage significance. The Swan River that passes beneath the bridge is also of cultural importance to the Noongar people, and its conservation is an additional public concern.
The community engagement process undertaken by the WA government involved 10 stages, culiminating in a one day deliberative survey forum which brought together almost 200 citizens face-to-face. Prior to this however there was extensive community engagement and consultation which fed into the one day event:
- Steering group established to develop and plan the process
- Community/industry stakeholder workshop with 40 participants to feed into the development of materials and process
- Local indigenous Elders consultation to identify issues most important to indigenous community
- Broad community survey which also served as invitation to deliberative survey
- Distribution of information to those who accepted invite to deliberative survey
- Additional recruitment effort to ensure sample is more representative
- Training for team working on the deliberative survey forum
- Deliberative survey forum held
- Preliminary report of forum given to participants
- Completed analysis sent to all participants
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Fremantle Bridge community engagement process was funded and instigated by the WA state government with Main Roads WA, the government department responsible for the bridge. The process was organised by Janette Hartz-Karp, a deliberative democracy scholar and practitioner who was also responsible for Geraldton 2029 and Beyond.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Two recruitment strategies were employed for the deliberative survey forum (the one day face-to-face event). Firstly, a broad community survey (stage 4 above) was mailed out to 6,000 randomly selected residents. This survey also included an invitation for the deliberative survey. The aim of this approach was to establish a stratified pool for demographics. The second approach supplemented the first through random calling to further fulfil demographic quotas. This active recruitment was furthered by recruiting on the ground in locations where underrepresented groups were likely to be found.
Notably, this two-pronged recruitment approach impacted on the overall process. The group recruited through the community survey tended to be older, and received more information on the issue prior to the one day forum. On the other hand, participants who were actively recruited by phone or face-to-face didn't receive this info until they arrived for the forum.
Methods and Tools Used
Before the final one day face-to-face deliberation, community members were engaged through stakeholder workshops and surveys. The deliberative forum was largely an exercise in learning, involving Q&A with experts and small group discussions, but no voting or decision-making.
What Went On: Process, Interaction and Participation
The process went through a number of phases before the final one day face-to-face deliberation. This case is quite unusual in that involved a relatively large number of participants (almost 200) meeting over just one day. By contrast, citizens' juries usually comprise 15-25 people and meet several times. Deliberative polls, which typically involve larger groups, also meet on more than one occasion.
Surveys and Workshops
The first substantive engagement with the wider community came through the community survey, which gave overviews of the six options for the bridge. Prior to this though, stakeholders and local indigenous groups were also consulted, in the form of workshops to a) identify issues important to those groups and b) enable those groups to feedback and improve on information that would be provided to lay participants including the community survey. The second survey (deliberative survey) was administered twice: prior to and following the one day forum. Part of the deliberative survey incorporated questions that were also asked in the community survey.
One day forum
165 people participated in the one day deliberative event. The aim was a 'learning day' for participants to build on their existing knowledge on the bridge. Small group deliberation was facilitated by trained facilitators. Networked computers were used during the day to feed questions and strands of argument from participants to panellists and vice versa. This was essential given the large number of participants as it reduced the time required for plenary sessions. It also meant that everyone had a voice, rather than just few more vocal people dominating a Q&A session. Feedback was inputted by scribes at each table who were either participants themselves or members of the research team. If a table had a specific question, they could raise a green card and an expert could come to answer their query. These design measures were put in place to try and ensure that the day 'flowed' well - that discussion was free-flowing and that participants did not get 'stuck on unproductive or irrelevant points' (Niemeyer et al 2008, p13).
It was not necessary to reach consensus or have a voting system in place for the forum as it was only required of participants to 'take into account the relevant perspectives coming to bear on the issue' (Niemeyer et al 2008, p13). Another important aspect of the process design was to ensure that participants and stakeholders were clear from the outset what the extent and remit of their involvement. Prior to its commencement, the Minister for Main Roads WA clarified that outcomes from the engagement process would be given consideration.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
As a result of the deliberative process, participants came to favour a new bridge over repairing the old one. Niemeyer et al's (2008) report suggests that the process was a success, in deliberative democratic terms: given the large number of participants and limited time, a successful deliberative environment was created.
Beyond academic terms however, the legacy of the process has been less positive for the future of the Fremantle bridge. 10 years after the community engagement process, the old bridge is still in place and apparently dire need of repair. Media reports from 2011 up to May 2016 claim that the bridge is at risk of collapse from collision with marine vessels. Local Labour MP Simone McGurk is quoted as saying:
"When Labor was in government we had set aside $80 million towards the cost of a new bridge. But in 2011 the Barnett government removed that money and decided to put in place a series of running repairs instead."
Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettit also iterates the need for a replacement bridge and mentions the possibility of making the old bridge into a pedestrian landmark. However, there appears to be no mention of the community engagement process in recent media reports so it is not possible to confirm exactly what happened to the outcome of the Fremantle Bridge Community Engagement Process.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
In their report, Niemeyer et al (2008) focus analysis on preference transformation and other deliberative dynamics. They employ Q-method as a way of mapping a subsample of 50 participants' viewpoints before and after the deliberation. Q-method is a technique involving both interpretive and statistical method to identify shared perspectives or discourses on a given topic. This enabled the authors to consider the level of preference transformation that occurred through participation. Their analysis shows a modest change in preferences for the six options. Both 'repair options' declined in popularity whilst the option of a new statement bridge saw the greatest gain in popularity.
They also explore the nature and reasoning behind any change in preference. It appears that an increased preference for a new bridge - over repairing the old one - was motivated by a shift towards increased concern over the safety and sustainability of the old bridge. The Q-study found an increased uptake of the viewpoint that prioritised safety concerns.
Niemeyer et al (2008) also analyse the possible impact of two divergent recruitment strategies on deliberation (see p28). The recruitment strategy created essentially two groups of participants - older people recruited through the community survey who received prior information, and younger people recruited by phone or face-to-face who did not receive prior information. Their analysis suggests that age may impact on how people engage with the deliberative process. It appears that the younger age group were more concerned about the heritage and aesthetics of the bridge than their older counterparts. In addition, older people converged on a single position more than younger people at the end of the process.
The authors also examine the effect of pre-deliberative information. They find that those who received prior information were more inclined to safety and engineering concerns. It is possible that this is due to the information in the community survey having greater emphasis (unintentionally) on the safety aspects of the bridge over heritage or aesthetics. However, this pre-deliberative framing effect appears to have been partly mitigated by the deliberative process, when considerable convergence occurred between the info and non-info groups. Nonetheless, some underlying divergence remains between the two (see p37-38).
Niemeyer (2011) also examined the process to explore the emancipatory effects of deliberation. Here he argues that deliberation can mitigate the effects of symbolic politics. In the Fremantle bridge case, symbolic concerns about the bridge's heritage were dampened through deliberative participation. Prior to deliberation, heritage was prioritised and 'crowded out other concerns' (Niemeyer 2011, p124). Following deliberation, 'the final outcome reflected a greater level of integrative thinking across the range of relevant issues, once individuals were liberated from the effect of distorting symbols, whose claims only had a chance to be checked against reality in the context of a deliberative process' (2011, p124).
Niemeyer, S. (2011) The emancipatory effect of deliberation: empirical lessons from mini-publics, Politics and Society, 39(1), pp. 103-140.
Niemeyer, S. Ayirtman, S. and Hartz-Karp, J. (2008) Achieving Success in Large Scale Deliberation Analysis of the Fremantle Bridge Community Engagement Process, Canberra: Deliberative Democracy Research Group, ANU.
The first submission of this case entry was based primarily on the report: 'Achieving Success in Large Scale Deliberation Analysis of the Fremantle Bridge Community Engagement Process'.