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HomeIssue 1A new way to tackle 'wicked' problems

A new way to tackle ‘wicked’ problems


A little remarked upon decision by the Alice Springs Town Council at the end of 2020 could put the community in the lead when it comes to council decision-making.

In December councillors gave officers the green light to work with a “deliberative democracy” organisation called democracyCo to trial a new “community engagement model.”

Officers had proposed that the trial be limited to Larapinta, choosing this suburb for its diverse population with public and private schools, various places of worship, sporting facilities, public parks and the Desert Park, as well as “a big-ticket consultation item (Albrecht Oval).”

The community engagement would set a strategic direction for the suburb’s future development, laying “the groundwork” to incorporate into future council plans – the Corporate Business Plan, Annual Municipal Plan, Long Term Financial Plan, Asset Management Plan, Risk Management Plan, and Workforce Plan.

Councillors backed the model but rather than limiting the trial to one suburb, preferred it to be conducted across the whole of Alice Springs.

The town has had future planning exercises before – noteworthy for changing nothing much (eg, the very limited implementation that came out of the 2008 planning forum) or for keeping the broader community excluded from the discussion (eg, the current master planning exercise by council and NT Government representatives working behind closed doors).

The difference this time around lies in who would get involved and how.

Deliberative democracy, also known as participatory democracy, relies on randomly selected “mini publics”, also known as “citizens’ assemblies” or “citizens’ juries”, to do the work.

Random selection aims to allow “typically unheard voices to be heard,”  says Emma Lawson, one of two principals at democracyCo.

The selection’s yield though is only as good as the database feeding it. Juries in the legal system, for example, are randomly selected from the electoral roll. But in a jurisdiction where an important demographic – Aboriginal people –  is not well represented on the roll, it will be necessary to look further afield.

“All databases have their limitations,” says Ms Lawson. “Where these limitations significantly adversely impact on our ability to recruit the desired diversity, we use supplementary recruitment processes.

“For example, in the past recruiting youth has been challenging using standard databases  – so we have supplemented our general recruitment approach by distributing some invites at random through universities and TAFE or through youth groups.”

Once assembled, a citizens’ jury is not left to its own devices. An important part of the process is putting before them as much relevant and well-based information as they need for their deliberations.

Council officers described input (for a Larapinta-based trial) as coming “from Elected Members, supported by Council staff, and key stakeholders, including Indigenous Organisations (Congress, Tangentyere, Lhere Artepe), NT Government Departments (Education, Territory Families, DIPL, NT Police etc.), and Albrecht Oval user groups.

One might hope though that the process would also look further afield for information, for example to the experience of similar-sized communities elsewhere dealing with complex issues –  so as not to be working off a “same old, same old” base. 

democracyCo says that an interesting feature of citizens’ juries is that “they typically result in considered and moderate recommendations that successfully blend competing claims and help reconcile antagonistic groups.”

They are particularly useful when it comes to dealing with “wicked” problems and it’s hard to imagine a more wicked one than the storage of overseas nuclear waste, tackled by democracyCo in South Australia.

They worked first with a jury of 54 people who analysed the Nuclear Fuel Cycle’s Royal Commission Report and then assembled the largest citizens’ jury ever conducted in the world – 350 people, supported by 16 skilled facilitators.

The second jury had to consider “Under what circumstances (if any) could South Australia pursue the opportunity to store and dispose of nuclear waste from other countries?”

They did not achieve a consensus view, but a strong majority – two thirds –  did not wish to pursue the opportunity under any circumstances.

What is interesting in their report is to see the extent to which the jury challenged the information coming from the Royal Commission Report, which would generally be perceived as an authoritative source. That would seem to be evidence of the juries engaging in a very active critical thinking process.

Closer to home, an example of a wicked problem would be the challenge the town experiences in turning around some young people’s antisocial and occasionally criminal behaviour.

There was little debate in the chamber about adopting the deliberative democracy approach, but when the old curfew chestnut came up, Councillor Jimmy Cocking mentioned the importance of an “evidence based approach” – lacking in this instance – and the possibility of “using participatory democracy to come up with solution.”

Officers though would seem to have something less specific in mind, providing the examples of vision and strategic direction documents produced by citizens’ juries in Darwin and Palmerston – democracyCo facilitated both.

Reading both, it’s hard to discern where they part ways with other such documents generated from conventional consultation approaches, where an effort has been made to garner a cross-section of views.

When the focus of questions is broad, answers also tend to be broad. The devil will always be in the detail and the implementation.

It will be up to the community to push for this reform to be pursued to its full potential.

Images: Public meetings on hot button issues are a feature of Alice Springs political life, but their passion tends to burn bright and short. Photos from our archive. 


Last updated Wednesday, 6 January 2021, 9.16am.


  1. An evidence based approach… How many more broken windows and stolen cars do you need to see?

  2. Evidence based. A curfew worked in Pt Augusta, and many councillors travelled there at our expense to see how it worked, and did nothing.
    It also worked in Northbridge, although it caused other issues (that would not occur here), the goal of the curfew was achieved, and is still effective over 10 years later.
    How would Jimmy be open to new ideas if he wants evidence based solutions? Sometimes you need to step up and pioneer the solutions, not wait to see what others do while this town rots.

  3. We need transformative change here to deal with the challenges of youth crime, poverty, domestic violence and other related issues.
    A curfew by itself is not going to sort this out, nor is increased surveillance or a safe house for young people.
    We need community based solutions that change behaviour.
    This is a long term endeavour and needs commitment from all levels of government, the community and business sectors.
    An evidence based solution comparable to Alice Springs that is working is the Bourke Justice Reinvestment model, lead by a local Aboriginal Corporation Maranguka, is getting results.
    This was police, community and governments working to reduce crime and support families and young people to make a difference.
    We are in this mess because we’re only dealing with the symptoms not the causes. A long term and whole of community approach is required.
    Participatory democracy is part of the story and will lead to better community engagement on many issues – but a collective approach that deals with education, family support, crime prevention and community safety, youth engagement and the challenges of living in a remote Outback town where the frontier mentality still reigns.

  4. “Participatory Democracy.”
    What is that exactly, Jimmy? Anyone?
    As I thought we already had that, through the process of electing our representatives across the three tiers of Federal, State/Territory, and Local Governments.
    But then again, when “operational business” at the lower end of Local Government representative process can curtail just about anything the community has an interest in, in Alice Springs currently anyway, what’s “Participatory Democracy” going to achieve?
    As sooner or later, if Council / the CEO don’t wish to discuss the issue at hand, there’s no doubt in my mind it will eventually become “operational business”.
    And soon thereafter put in the “too hard basket” and not seen or discussed ever again.
    I suggest our current Councillors seriously look at their current way of dealing with things rather than leaving the decision making entirely up to the CEO.
    Is “Operational Business” defined in the NT Local Government Act as being a “thing”? Not ever to be discussed with constituent residents/ratepayers?
    Perhaps someone should address the current blocking of any ASTC defined “operational business” with the NTG Dept of Local Government, or the Local Govt Minister … sorry not sure who that currently is … to see if it’s kosher, in line with the LG Act?
    Let’s not forget, Councillors can be voted out at the next election.
    But, perhaps unfortunately given current circumstances, the current ASTC CEO cannot.
    Is a mutiny required?

  5. @ Jimmy Cocking: “We need community based solutions that change behaviour.”
    If you want the community to be involved, then you need to involve the community at all stages and with all important topics, not just the ones you feel politically important and certainly not just after the shit has hit the fan.
    To do so, is both stupid and insulting.

  6. Hear! hear!Surprised.
    Community-based refers to a philosophical approach in which communities have an active role and participate in highlighting and addressing the issues that matter to them regardless of political views.
    A community-based approach means that people (including the target ones) have “the right to participate in making decisions that affect their lives” as well as “a right to information and transparency”.

  7. Staggering irony here of ASTC, notorious for not communicating with residents, proposing a deliberate democracy model.
    Even more irony in Jimmy Cocking’s embrace of community-based solutions when he was one of the first to accept the CEO’s dictatorial use of ‘operational matter’ to shut down communication.
    A collective approach is impossible while we have the ASTC doing exactly the opposite.
    If the ASTC are genuine about this approach let’s see them demonstrate it by example by removing the shroud of secrecy and doing away with operational silence.
    Let’s have open and accountable local governance.

  8. @watchn; CEO could be leading the Council into the future?
    The problem is that the future the CEO seems to want is not one I want to be part of.
    CEO Jennings is slow to communicate and prefers to not respond at all.
    When he encounters opposition or the slightest problem, he declares the matter ‘operation’.
    That’s ASTC code for ‘discussion closed’.


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