Recent City of Adelaide YourSay public consultation about public consultation — yes, you read that right — highlighted something important about the yawning gulf and the public tension between the older analogue and the digital world in South Australia.
Many today assume that the digital notification and consultation model used by public agencies has much improved the way matters get publicised, scrutinised and determined. But that’s in doubt, as this story reveals.
When the City Council in January 2018 sought to cut costs by ceasing to advertise consultations about proposed council changes in a state edition of The Advertiser, there was some unflattering feedback. A view emerged that those living distant from the city relied on state print media to find out. Without that YourSay notification — and by not being daily obsessed with the internet and its digital menu of response mechanisms — they wouldn’t be in a position to respond to YourSay consultations. Council disagreed and now won’t be using the ‘Tiser, except to adopt a caveat that its administrators ‘may elect’ at times to use the older state-wide print model, but won’t guarantee it. They say it’ll save money and it breaches no law.
Controlling the levers
If bureaucrats control the means to notify us about important changes, gather responses, then have them analysed, they have much power. City councillors who want consultations to inform their future determinations (sometimes actually already made) often have no idea of any ‘smoothing’ of the prickly barbs that might be received before a tempting plate of oven-warmed conclusion is put before them for a decision.
Digital inquiry about matters public is well entrenched. Although administrators in January didn’t seek any feedback about YourSay, its recent inquiry inadvertently also triggered comments on what some people didn’t like about YourSay.
Said one: “The [online] surveys should include comment sections for each of the questions/topics and not just one comment section at the end of the survey. Rarely can an issue be distilled to just a binary response. [Another] aspect concerns respondents… On occasions, and particularly with online contributions, respondents use nom de plumes. This raises the question of whether the contribution comes from a bona fide respondent or … is it a multiple contribution from one person? The most stringent efforts should be made to ensure genuine responses.”
Council administrators responded that they might request names and addresses ‘of respondents making submissions’ (but subjectively, depending on the topic). That leaves the yes/no respondents potentially free to cheat and skew the result.
The concept of YourSay always was going to be iffy, even as far back as 2011 when it first came into council use. The US-imported model presupposes that time-poor respondents who didn’t want to read up on background might in any case give up a rich palette of considered, well-informed views. That’s one of the fallacious assumptions behind use of digital media for consultation.
“From our experience,” said another respondent, “not enough detail is provided for the community to make educated submissions [so] we cannot see how elected members can make informed decisions.”
There also was high potential to skew a sample by giving every response the same weight. Said one: “No anonymous contributions should be considered, as they have in the past.” Said another: “We have seen responses from interstate. They should not be commenting on South Australian proposals, skewing outcomes for locals.”
There was an inherent potential for superficiality. Said another: “To give the same weight to a simple yes/no answer [as] to a considered argument is to ‘disrespect’ those who have gone to the trouble of developing an argument [in a submission]. Yes/no answers can facilitate corruption of the consultation process by making it easier for ‘votes’ to be bought.”
Proof in the pudding
Adelaide City Council experienced the very thing late last year when a YourSay survey (asking about a proposal to approve changes to a document to authorise a helipad construction in the park lands) was circulated, collected and analysed. A 136-yes-vote resulted, but dominated by a ‘tick-the-box’, minimalist response.
Council staff assumed that the 72 per cent majority (of 188) supported the proposition for use of the park lands, but a park lands advocate scrutinised the sample breakdown and found that only a small number of votes did. The remainder of that 72 per cent supported the concept, but not use of the site. Later it emerged that the big yes sample had been prompted through a private organisation’s free lottery prize of a free helicopter ride to a randomly chosen person who had voted yes, so corrupting the sample that the entire consultation was abandoned.
A $25,000 council inquiry later tested implications for the rigour of YourSay, but deftly twisted the term of reference as to whether anyone within council had manipulated the process. Of course, they hadn’t. The assessor also challenged an assumption that any manipulation might have occurred. Hello? A whitewash was obvious.
Pursuit of the helipad concept, which led to two YourSay consultations, had cost council $42,420 over two years and it also spent $35,000 on a report. So much for saving money. Despite that big wake-up call, there don’t appear to be any new checks implemented to block future sample corruption. For administrators who want easily obtained responses, the convenience, and low cost, is just too tempting.