Our society is changing, and with it the relationship between local government and the individual residents of the community. We are moving away from a government as the nanny of society, looking after us all from the cradle to the grave. The wealthy times when this was affordable are over, while at the same time citizens have become less docile and more vocal, demanding a choice.

Second thoughts about government emerged in the 1980s, when its inflexibility and lack of efficiency were criticised. The market was believed to provide the solution, and many tasks and responsibilities were outsourced or handed over. However, after a few decades it has become obvious that the market will not deliver the resolution that was hoped for. On the contrary, the cases of big businesses abusing their powers are piling up, resulting in more and more people distrusting now both government and the market. In the meantime, the ‘demanding voice’ has evolved into ‘demanding self-determination’.

Currently, many lean towards sharing and ‘do-it-yourself’ as the new solution. Active citizenship, community initiatives and sharing though community networks and digital platforms to by-pass government and big business are forging ahead.

Even so, this does not mean there is no role or appreciation for the market or local government. Self-organisation is great, but has its downsides, such as the risk of inequality, a potential threat to one of the core values of Australian society. Local government is still a significant body in securing citizen values and protecting the less fortunate and less verbal members of the community against negative impacts inflicted by more powerful parties. Relieved from the obligation to make profits, combined with the constant public scrutiny and evaluation through the political system, local government also has an important role to play as leader in developing and implementing new solutions for pressing issues burdening our society. These are essential and highly needed qualities in a society of continuous individualisation.

In this playing field of shifting values and expectations, many local governments struggle to find their way in the changing relationship between government and citizen. Faithfully carrying out the welfare state obligations has created an organisational culture that can make it difficult to turn from regulating into facilitating. However, there are particular Local Governments leading in this quest to authentic citizen empowerment. Over the last few years, WA has witnessed a changing shift of direction and organisation culture from bureaucratic regulator and watchdog into service provider and stimulator, finding new directions to organise and lead. Local Government are more often showing increasing qualities of listening, questioning, reflecting and leading by example. And we can see this shift in the physical and social landscapes, including such developments as the Mary Street, Piazza, which was led by the Beaufort Street Network Community Group, the various night markets and community gardens, which have been almost all community led.

Picking up the Beaufort Street Network Community group model as an effective ingredient to improve the town centres, placemakers and other government officials are now organising and installing these groups for further centres in and around the city. Not to control them as local government, but to stimulate and facilitate community members to organise themselves. As placemakers, we see this community confidence as an excellent opportunity to again expand the strategic empowering of the community to be a full-blown companion of local government. Let’s hope we can continue searching for more of these wonderful community led initiatives in the future of space travel!

Written by: Hans Oerlermans and David Snyder

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