When a local high school was closed without consultation, the future development of the land became a contentious issue within the Scarborough community. In an attempt to move forward, the state government pursued a community consultation with a consensus forum.
Problems and Purpose
In 1999, the then-Liberal government of Western Australia made the decision to close Scarborough Senior High School to sell the land for housing. This was done without consultation with the Perth community or school population. It was promised that the gym and pool facilities would remain on site for public use, but these were then demolished as well (Scarborough High Open Space Action Group 2006).
The issue is considered to have played a role in the 2000 election when the Liberal government were ousted in favor of Labor. The Labor government decided to sell part of the land, with the money being used to provide educational facilities (either on or off site - that was to be determined). The remainder of the land and further development was to be put to the community for consultation.
Because of the controversy surrounding the closure of the school, the community had organised and there was one particularly prominent group, the Scarborough High Open Space Action Group (SHOSAG), who were active in lobbying for the site to be retained as 100% open public space. The Labor government and Minister Alannah McTiernan publicly stated that up to 50% of the site would be available for public space, and 100% was ruled out from the outset. However, emotions were running high and SHOSAG were opposed to the community consultation for this reason.
The consultation ran in two stages. The first was a community consensus forum, the aim of which was to develop and prioritise options for the redevelopment. These options were then put to the wider community in a community survey, to decide how to proceed.
Background History and Context
When Labor came to power in WA in 2001, one of their key pledges was to enhance community and participatory decision-making. In particular, 'the new Minister for Planning and Infrastructure, Alannah MacTiernan, was determined to champion community engagement as a way of encouraging joint decision making and democratic renewal' (Gregory 2008). In order to achieve this, the Minister employed Janette Hartz-Karp, a deliberative democracy scholar and practitioner, to undertake the task. Between 2001 and 2005, Hartz-Karp - founder of 21st Century Dialogue - delivered nearly 40 deliberative processes in WA. At the time this was pretty much unique - where a politician had so whole-heartedly embraced deliberative and participatory decision-making.
In this case, the complete lack of consultation regarding the school closure, compounded by the demolishing of the gym facilities, meant that community trust in government was at an all-time low. In addition to this, SHOSAG opposed any other options apart from 90-100% public open space. This backdrop meant that the community consultation was a difficult process, with opposition and protest throughout and afterwards.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
This process was initiated and funded by the WA department of planning and infrastructure. It was designed and implemented by 21st Century Dialogue.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The consultation was comprised of two phases, a consensus forum and community survey. A community reference group, containing representatives from lobby groups, was set up to oversee the entire process. They were also responsible for choosing some aspects of the participant recruitment process. Despite stakeholder's own involvement in this process, there were still complaints from lobby groups that there was not enough notice or advertisement of the forum, and that survey participants were not given enough time to return the surveys (10 days).
For the consensus forum, around 50% of attendees were invited through lobby groups, or invited through a random sample of residents from the school catchment area. The other 50% were a random sample of citizens who had responded to promotion of the event in local newspapers. 100 people attended the consensus forum overall.
The sample for the survey was discussed in conjunction with the community reference group. Addresses for the school catchment area were provided by the WA electoral commission and a total of 6,000 surveys were sent out by mail. In addition, members of lobby groups who lived outside the catchment area were sent the survey. A total of 6,100 surveys were sent out, and 1,889 were returned.
Methods and Tools Used
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The aim of the consensus forum was to determine options for the redevelopment of the school site, including the % of land designated for public open space, and whether new education and exercise facilities (which Labor were committed to providing) would be located on the school site or elsewhere. Prior to the forum, protesters gathered outside the venue and there was a media presence. Protesters were opposed to the consultation because the government had ruled out the 100% public space option.
At the forum, participants were allocated to specific tables so that a mix of viewpoints was represented. However, 21st Century Dialogue note that participants did not always stay at their allocated tables. Table facilitators were Labor MPs and senior staff from LandCorp, the developer responsible for the school site.
During the forum, LandCorp presented 10 different options and costings. Participants then discussed these options and developed new options that fitted within the government's scope for the site. Options were discussed during a plenary session, and finally participants prioritised options to determine which options would be on the community survey. Notably, two additional options of 100% and 90% public open space were put forward, despite being outside of the government scope. However, the Minister agreed to discuss these options with cabinet.
Throughout the forum, a technique called De Bono's Six Thinking Hats was used. This requires discussants to separate their thinking into different strands by wearing different 'hats' in the discussion: information needed, intuition, devil's advocate, optimism, creativity and managing the conversation. This type of roleplay helps to ensure deliberation is rigorous and well-thought out, as well as mitigating the role of emotive thinking.
Following the forum, 7 options were prioritised for consideration by the wider community in the survey.
The survey was developed and delivered by an independent company. The first part of the survey asked respondents to consider the trade off between open space and facilities on the site. The second section asked whether new facilities should be built on the school site or elsewhere.
The survey process was criticised by the SHOSAG for not giving respondents enough time to return the surveys, and for the questions being too complicated. However, others commented that the survey did a good job of getting across a complex topic in simple terms.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The survey results showed that the community preferred the option of 30% open space with facilities on site, with facilities including an open 50 metre pool and sports courts. The Minister accepted the findings, but SHOSAG were not happy. In particular, they opposed the swimming pool on the school site and preferred it to be located at Scarborough beach. Whilst the multipurpose courts have been built, the pool plans remained in limbo with the funds resting in an account until it was resolved. However, in December 2015 local media reported that a new 50 metre open pool (sounding suspiciously like the planned pool of 2001) was planned for Scarborough Beach. The report does not mention the school site. Whilst $3million set aside from the sale of land on the school site will be used, the project still requires additional government funding which has been applied for (ABC News 2014). It is not clear exactly what happened in the intervening 14 years.
News also reported in 2014 that a new high school was planned for Perth's western suburbs - the area where Scarborough High once stood. Increasing demand for secondary education is an issue in Australia's cities as family populations increase, as this Participedia case in Sydney also shows. The current (Liberal Party) Premier for WA was the Education Minister who resided over the closure of Scarborough High School in the late 90s. In this report, a Labor MP argues that the extra pressure on high schools was created when several schools were closed during the last Liberal government.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
21st Century Dialogue note that because of the lack of community consultation at the start of this journey (the school closing), it was extremely difficult to implement any consultation process after this point. They suggest that involving the community at the very earliest stages of decision-making could help mitigate this, but obviously in this case it was not possible: when the Labor government initiated the consultation the Liberal government had already closed the school and demolished the gym facilities.
"Despite the considerable effort to create a fair, transparent and accountable community consultation process, it was criticised by some at every stage...When community members were anxious about the result, they criticised the process, even though they were stakeholders it its development. Rumour and innuendo became far more powerful than fact and information. Considerable distrust developed not only between the community and the politicians / bureaucrats, but also within different segments of the community. Agreements not in writing were later reneged upon.
Although the process was seen as fair and worthy by some community groups; for others, it was a betrayal. The lobby groups in the community that did not agree with the parameters the government set, could see no fairness in the consultation process."
21st Century Dialogue reflect that perhaps in this case - where some stakeholders are fixated on a single option and unwilling to consider alternatives - that a consensus forum may not be the best format to use. The consensus forum is most suitable when participants are open to considering different options and engage in constructive dialogue. In cases such as this it may be preferable to use a Citizens' Jury format and have the lobby group present as a witness, rather than take part as a participant. This ensures involvement in the process and the chance to influence the outcome, but leaves the decision-making up to a disinterested random sample of citizens.
ABC News (2014) Scarborough Beach-side pool plan announced by City of Stirling [online], available at: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-12-09/scarborough-beach-ocean-pool-annou...
Gregory, J, Hartz-Karp J and Watson, R. (2008) Using deliberative techniques to engage the community in policy development, Australia and New Zealand Health Policy, 5(16), available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2500036/
Government of WA (2001) Scarborough residents to vote on high school redevelopment [online], available at: https://www.mediastatements.wa.gov.au/Pages/Gallop/2001/06/Scarborough-r...
Scarborough High Open Space Action Group (2006) available at: http://www.tovegin.com.au/community/articles/scarborough_flyer.htm
The following article is summarised from 21st Century Dialogue's website, where you can find a detailed overview of this case.