Involve residents in decisions: Grattan Institute

THE Grattan Institute last month released the report 'Cities: Who Decides?', authored by Jane-Frances Kelly, with a focus on who makes decisions about our cities and how they are made. The report investigates city-level decision making in eight cities that have significantly improved in serving a broad range of their residents' needs.

The report examines the governance arrangements of Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Austin, Dublin and Copenhagen and finds several common themes:

  • High and sustained levels of public engagement in decision-making were found in many of the cities, particularly where improvement required tough choices;
  • Cities that achieved meaningful, long-term success typically demonstrated a consistent strategic direction across political cycles;
  • Many successful cities benefited from cross-sector collaboration between government, the business community, and civic organisations; and
  • There was usually a trigger for improvement, which catalysed the political will required for real, sustained improvement.

Experts were interviewed from each city, including former mayors, heads of business groups, CEOs, academics, leaders from civil society and planners. The cities were chosen because they shared important characteristics with cities in Australia.

Ms Kelly said the findings have two implications for Australian cities. "Residents must be involved in decisions. Those cities that made tough choices, and saw them through, had early, genuine, and deep public engagement. This level of engagement is different in scale and in kind from what happens in Australia today," she said.

Ms Kelly also warned that "changing structures does not in itself result in success", adding that "no one particular governance structure was associated with broad-based improvement. Changing structures has the danger of being a distraction."

"We will need higher levels of public engagement to improve our cities. This needs to be an order of magnitude different from what we have seen in Australia. While governments are central to decision making, other actors – residents, businesses, NGOs, among others – all need to be actively involved in the tough decisions that will shape our cities. In addition, our research suggested that no particular type of governance structure was vital for success. Nor was there an ideal 'model of development'", Ms Kelly said.

The full report, 'Cities: Who Decides?', authored by Jane-Frances Kelly, is available from the Grattan Institute website at <>.

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