Not really, but I was tempted after hearing Dr Kathy Alexander, the CEO of the City of Melbourne, talk at a local government emerging leaders forum. I took five pages of notes in 20 minutes. She has uncommon common sense and uncommon candour, perhaps because she started her career as a psychologist, then a health promoter, then a health CEO before becoming a city manager.

A few (heavily paraphrased) notes:

As a health promoter in South Australia she listened to women in an isolated community talk about the stale fruit and veg being sold expensively by the only grocer in the neighbourhood. When they suggested getting a bus to drive to the fruit markets, she arranged the bus, effectively putting a group of feisty women in competition with the local grocer, who finally rose the occasion and lowered the price of his offerings.

What a good idea – using a health dept bus to drive people to a fruit market instead of a hospital.

Her view on council customer surveys: “I think surveys are just cheating”. (Because most council managers word them to justify the status quo).

In charge of a regional health promotion unit, she got her staff onto the streets and interviewed 7,500 residents, asking them one main question – “what three things would make your community healthier”. So many pointed to the noxious 24/7 air pollution from a Sims Metal plant in town that she took the plant on on, supporting the formation of a citizens’ action group that successfully took the state government to court to enforce air quality standards. No longer able to ignore the community in this safe seat the state government later launched a major community development program.

To the perennial problem of councillors who think they are elected to make decisions without community’s input: “Community engagement is a way to find the right political answer.”

To the perennial problem of what to do about moribund community advisory committees, without causing a riot by simply closing them down: Reopen their membership, BUT ALSO redefine their terms of reference: instead of ‘advising’ on the views of young people or indigenous people or whatever, their role is to ‘oversee engagement’ with those groups. Brilliant.

The “Colleen Communities” of this world, the “usual suspects” who sit on innumerable council committees, can “become incredibly powerful and fight like crazy to stop real community participation.” You can never make any engagement process truly representative, but every increment of diversity makes it more representative. Broadening the voices drowns out “Colleen Community”.

A great community engagement strategy is to “make your problem their problem”. So, if you have a devil of a job balancing a budget, ask community forums to balance it for you. She told the story of a recent state-wide consultation in Victoria about setting the balance of expenditure in health care. 40 community forums (called ‘boards’) were set up, and, overwhelmingly recommended spending more on preventative health. Even a father whose son had been saved in an intensive care ward said that more money should be shifted from high cost clinical intervention to prevention.

Her conclusion: “A fundamental principle of community engagement is being willing to give up some power.”