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Community engagement and human rights

The Charter requires local councils to consider human rights when they deliver their services and engage with the community.

Although building human rights principles into an organisation’s operations can be a complex and challenging task, by engaging with the Charter, many local councils have improved their service standards and established new strategies to engage with their communities.

Service delivery

Local councils are responsible for delivering a wide variety of services to the community, including to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members, such as the elderly, people with disability, migrants, refugees and people of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island descent.

By taking a human rights-based approach to service delivery, local councils can have a meaningful impact on the health, wellbeing and dignity of the community.

In the Commission’s 2011 survey of local governments, Moonee Valley City Council commented that: ‘the Charter has resulted in an increased understanding of marginalised groups by the staff of Family and Children’s Services, which has helped some parts of the community to better access services and receive improved care’.

The following examples demonstrate a rights-based approach to service delivery:

  • The City of Darebin Charter Check Poster includes an overview of Charter rights that council staff must take into account when delivering services. It encourages staff to respect and promote human rights in their day-to-day work with colleagues, residents, clients, contractors and communities.
  • Moonee Valley City Council has a dedicated page on its website outlining its service standards and complaints resolution protocol. Among other things, the citizen service standards provide that in conducting its business, the council will ‘treat people with respect, dignity, equality and fairness’ and ‘value the diversity of our community and citizens’.

Community engagement

Community participation helps to inform and improve local government decision making by providing a diverse range of viewpoints and interests.

A human-rights based approach to community engagement can improve participation in decision-making, particularly for those groups that traditionally find it difficult to contribute to council decisions, such as young people, older people, and culturally and linguistically diverse people.

Local councils can promote community participation by raising awareness of their services, making services accessible to a broad range of people, tailoring information and training to suit diverse community needs, identifying and removing barriers to participation, and supporting activities that encourage community engagement.

Many innovative approaches to community engagement have been developed by local councils, including conversation tents (Port Phillip City Council), listening posts and local ideas days (Brimbank City Council), and street meetings and barbeques (Stonnington City Council).

Case study: Hume City Council – Community Engagement Framework and Planning Guide

The Hume City Council developed the Community Engagement Framework and Planning Guide to assist the council to undertake community engagement activities within a human rights framework. The guide states that:

‘Effective community engagement not only provides Council with an opportunity to strengthen its relationship with the community, but provides for sound investment in better decision making by ensuring decisions are informed of community needs and aspirations. When done in a meaningful way, it contributes to building trust between the community and Council, and also raises the quality of, and strengthens representative democracy while building community capacity’.

The guide refers to specific Charter rights that are relevant to community engagement, including that:

  • ‘every person in Victoria has the right, and is to have the opportunity, without discrimination, to participate in the conduct of public affairs’ (section 18)
  • that ‘every person has the right to freedom of expression which includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, whether within or outside Victoria’ (section 15).

Case study: City of Greater Dandenong ­– Online engagement

The City of Greater Dandenong uses several forms of social media to engage with members of the community online. This includes the:

The council used Facebook alongside traditional consultation approaches during the development of its community plan.

Other local councils – including the City of Monash, Surf Coast Shire Council and Knox City Council – also use social media to engage with the community. For example, Knox City Council has invested in social media forums to encourage dialogue and promote community events.

Case study - Buloke Shire Council: Monthly barbeques

Buloke Shire Council hosts a monthly barbeque in the local public hall of different towns around the region to involve the community in its ‘Managing Now, Planning Ahead’ strategy. It provides a friendly, informal setting for councillors and senior staff to talk with residents and listen to their concerns. The council reported that ‘all views are taken on board and everyone has the opportunity to express opinions’.

Human rights education

Providing easy-to-understand information and education on human rights is an effective way of encouraging community participation and engagement with the Charter, particularly for disadvantaged or marginalised members of the community.

It empowers people to build strong, safe and dynamic communities that promote equality, respect and dignity.

Local councils can educate the community about human rights by providing information on the council website, in brochures or pamphlets at key locations (such as local libraries), in council newsletters, in community newspapers, and at information sessions or community events.

The Commission can also provide on-site education and training on the Charter, tailored to the needs of your organisation and communities.

Case study: Mildura Rural City Council – Human rights collective

Mildura Rural City Council is a member of the Mallee Human Rights Collective, a community collaboration involving local organisations such as the Department of Justice, Mallee Family Care, Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council, the Mildura Arts Centre and La Trobe University. The aim of the collective is to increase awareness and understanding of human rights across a broad cross-section of the community.

The council has participated in a range of projects, including:

  • supporting and screening a locally made short film about human rights
  • participating in the community forum, ‘Rights in the Region’
  • running a media campaign, which included ‘hijacking’ the local newspaper’s ‘Word on the Street’ vox pops to ask human rights questions
  • reaching into local schools to educate students on the importance of placing human rights at the forefront of decision making.

Complaints procedures

Local councils must ensure that their complaint mechanisms are compatible with the Charter.

This will not only ensure local councils are complying with their legal obligations, but will result in improved complaint handling procedures that are fair, timely and impartial.

Complaint mechanisms are an important way of evaluating service delivery and identifying areas where services can be improved.

By considering human rights, many local councils have improved their practices. For example, Banyule City Council reported that: ‘on some occasions, citing the Charter and the rights to be considered has helped to gain more fully the cooperation of service units in resolving customer complaints. For example, a protracted complaint over issues impacting on a resident’s ability to easily access their property was looked at differently once staff in that area were reminded that they needed to consider a person’s property rights under the Charter’.

As a starting point, an effective complaint mechanism should:

  • operate in a fair, timely and impartial manner
  • treat everybody with dignity and respect
  • provide the information needed in a suitable format for all audiences
  • assist members of the community to make a complaint.

Complaints under the Charter

If a person is concerned that a local council has breached their human rights, the person should try to resolve the issue directly with the council.

To assist people to make human rights complaints, local councils can develop a stand-alone policy (such as the Bass Coast Shire Council Charter Complaint Handling Procedure below) or can consider including a reference to human rights complaints in the council’s general complaints procedures.

If a person is unable to resolve the issue directly with the council, a complaint can be made to the Victorian Ombudsman (or to other appropriate complaint bodies such as the Disability Services Commissioner). The Commission does not handle complaints related to the Charter.

Case study: Wellington Shire Council – Human rights complaints procedure

Wellington Shire Council’s Human Rights Policy includes a basic referral process for human rights complaints. It requires reference to policies and guidelines where required, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity, Anti-Discrimination and Harassment Policy. The Human Rights Policy reassures staff that they will not be ‘penalised or disadvantaged as a result of raising genuine concerns or complaints relating to human rights’.

A number of councils have reviewed and amended their complaint handling procedures to ensure that they are compatible with the Charter.

The Bass Coast Shire Council has taken it one step further and developed the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities – Complaint Handling Procedure. This document sets out the procedure for dealing with complaints received specifically in relation to the council not meeting its obligations under the Charter.