CUNNING public service groups and large industry bodies have worked out how to avoid one of their nastiest tasks – the open public meeting. When a contentious decision is made, there’s now a new way to tick the “public consultation” box and it’s called the ‘drop-in information session’. Rather than addressing a large crowd all together, at a time convenient to the majority of those affected (after work), the drop-in sessions happen during business hours.
Here representatives will mount a display and answer individual questions from a handful of people, one-on-one, as they file through in dribs and drabs during the day. It does sound awfully civilised, much more so than facing a large group of concerned people, worried about a proposed special charge scheme, a coal seam gas mine or an inappropriate housing development. While it’s hard to argue against the benefits of personal, face-to-face communication, there is still a place for a public meeting where everyone can gain a better understanding of an issue by sharing information and also where the bureaucrats aren’t allowed to get away with fobbing off meaningful questions or providing corporatised answers.
Decision makers will also never hear or understand the full extent of a community’s angst at a drop-in session.
OK, they might have to put up with a bit of argy bargy but what’s wrong with allowing the community to let off a little steam? And it’s far better to get to the nitty gritty of an issue in the formative stages than find out later that a costly exercise could have been avoided with more meaningful consultation. It may well be a case of occupational, health and safety risk assessment gone too far that bureaucrats are unwilling to meet the ‘glorious unwashed masses’. But these people are all just ordinary citizens with ordinary needs and concerns and yes, with an ordinary amount of ignorance of the issues involved. They are not mad, axe-wielding murderers. Any public servant or company liaison officer reluctant to meet with the community in such a forum is in the wrong job. And for goodness sake, hold the meetings when the community is available to attend – outside working hours.