Following the planned transition of two child care centres out of public operation, Bayside City Council convened a community panel to consider this issue and the future of local child care more broadly.
Problems and Purpose
In October 2011, Bayside City Council made the decision to ‘transition’ out of operating two child care centres in the area. Following this there was a good deal of concern in the local community, and the council eventually resolved to develop “a community engagement process to promote greater community awareness and understanding of the future options for child care services and ensure active community participation in any review of child care services” (Bayside City Council 2013b). The engagement consisted of the community panel alongside an online forum. The objectives for the process were to:
- Inform community understanding of the issues relating to child care
- Gauge the wider community’s views on Council’s role in child care
- Provide Council with the benefit of an informed community understanding of child care
- Give Council confidence that it is making an informed decision in the best interests of the wider community
Background History and Context
Following the decision to stop operating two child care centres in Bayside in 2011, the council opened up to private companies and invited expressions of interest to take over the operation of the centres. However, following community concern the tender process was abandoned and the council recognised the need to acknowledge concerns and embarked on a community engagement process. The council agreed as a part of the engagement to receive a report on future options regarding child care in Bayside.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The engagement process was funded by Bayside City Council. It was designed, implemented and facilitated by MosaicLab, an independent company specialising in community engagement.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Participants were selected through Australian Bureau of Statistics information to ensure a demographically representative group. Participants noted that the panel was overall older than expected, but it was noted that the average age in Bayside is older than in Melbourne, which could explain this (Bayside City Council 2013b, p13).
Participants were given a cash stipend for their participation in the panel. Demographics of the group was as follows:
- Seven people representing households with young children (Three of these seven were recruited separately as members of the high interest stakeholder group)
- Seven people representing households with older children or older and younger children
- Seven people representing households of couples with no children
- Two people representing lone person households (Bayside City Council 2013b, p13).
At the start of the process a survey also recorded panel members’ previous involvement with council:
- 10 people never or rarely involved themselves with Council activities
- 8 people rarely involve themselves with Council activities
- 4 people occasionally involve themselves
- 4 people frequently or very frequently involve themselves (Bayside City Council 2013b, p13)
An online forum that ran during the process attracted 663 visitors, 16 of whom made 50 comments. Out of those who commented, two were identified as panel members and high interest stakeholders (Bayside City Council 2013b, p14).
Methods and Tools Used
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What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The community panel met in person five times and followed deliberative democratic principles in its design and implementation. The first challenge for facilitators was to ensure that the group felt comfortable with each other. Also in the first meeting, facilitators asked the panel what sort of directions they wanted to take the deliberations, and what they need information-wise to achieve this. The second and third meetings focussed on learning; sharing and digesting the large amount of information available on what is quite a complex issue.
MosaicLab, who facilitated the process, tried to find different ways for people to get the information they needed. This was done through expert presentations and panels (as is the norm in citizens juries) but also through an exhibition process, where information was displayed around the venue so that people could read it and then hold small group conversations about that information. In a short film about the panel process, jurors discussed the importance of having a wide range views to inform the deliberation, and the panel’s determination as a group to make a valuable contribution to the council’s decision-making process.
The fourth meeting focussed on bringing the range of views together and to synthesise them into viable recommendations (Bayside City Council 2013). The fifth and final meeting was intended to evaluate the process itself, with recommendations having been finalised in the fourth session. The final session had lower attendance than the others, possibly because of this reason (Bayside City Council 2013b, p13).
Rather than voting yes or no on the recommendations, facilitators employed the 'dotmocracy' method. This enables participants to prioritise the options available by placing sticky dots next to the recommendations they think are important. This option allows participants to indicate how strongly they feel about an option, including neutral (Bayside City Council 2013b, p19).
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Ultimately the most popular option for the child care centres was for the council to find a not-for-profit provider. The least popular options were to either continue with council running the centres, or selling to a private for-profit provider (Bayside City Council 2013b, p20). The final report summarising the community engagement process (written by the council) indicates that:
“Overall, the community engagement activities show that the community believe that Council has a role to play in child care but that it should be a financially viable role.
The process was successful in achieving its objectives and the evaluative activities show that people felt listened to and found the process to be worthwhile.
This community engagement aspect of this project forms a key valuable input and will be consider along with other key inputs and studies when Council makes its final decision” (Bayside City Council 2013b, p30).
At the end of July 2013 following the conclusion of the engagement, a local media outlet reported that Hampton, one of the two council-operated child care centres, was to close (Herald Sun 2013).
Unfortunately, a council press release in February 2014 indicated that following unsuccessful attempts to find a suitable not-for-profit provider, the council made the decision to also close its other child care centre, Sandringham. The main reason cited is that the same financial constraints that made it inviable for the council to run the centre also applied to non-profits (Bayside City Council 2014).
Analysis and Lessons Learned
From the short film about the process, it seems that two real strengths of the community panel were the broad range of viewpoints that were brought together, and the group’s willingness and commitment to the process. In particular, it showed that although many panel members knew nothing about the issue and were not directly impacted by the decision themselves, they were still highly committed as a group to meaningful participation.
One juror in the film also noted that the jurors tried to consider the interests of all those affected by a potential decision; notably children. This could be seen as a nice illustration of the all-affected principle which is important in deliberative democracy. According to the all-affected principle, all those who are affected by a decision should be able to participate or have their viewpoints represented in deliberation. This includes those who for whatever reason, are not able to participate in the discussion itself – in this case the children whose care would be affected.
The same juror also discussed the high level of respect she encountered during the process, in comparison to other engagement activities she had attended where the most vocal, ‘single issue fanatics’ can dominate conversations. This could be seen as evidence of a successful random sample of a ‘disinterested public’ rather than people with an axe to grind. This was particularly important given that this issue became pretty contentious and the council’s original decision prompted a certain amount of outrage in the community (Bayside City Council 2013).
It is frustrating that despite the apparent robustness and positive process, ultimately the council ended up closing both its child care centres after being unable to find non-profit providers willing to take them on. The council did take on the community panel’s recommendations and made efforts to try and find non-profits, but was ultimately unsuccessful in this endeavour. The outcome in Bayside seems to be indicative of the amount of financial pressure that many local governments in Australia are currently under, whilst requirements for infrastructure and council services rise. Increasingly, community engagement processes are often about this trade-off between service provision and financial viability. This can be observed in other local processes like the Penrith Community Panel and the South East Drainage Community Panel.
South East Drainage Community Panel
Bayside City Council (2013) Child care future options community panel final short film [YouTube], available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y21XPp8XCLU
Bayside City Council (2013b) Child care future options community engagement report [pdf], available at: http://www.bayside.vic.gov.au/documents/Child_Care_Future_Options_-_Community_Engagement_Report.PDF
Bayside City Council (2014) Sandringham child care centre to close [online] available at: http://www.bayside.vic.gov.au/about_the_council/media%20release%20sandringham%20child%20care%20centre%20to%20close.htm
Herald Sun (2013) Bayside Council will close its Hampton childcare centre [online], 31 July, available at: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/leader/inner-south/bayside-council-will-close-its-hampton-childcare-centre/story-fngnvli9-1226688598601