It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time. There is no doubt in my mind that democracy isn’t perfect and one area where potential hazards exist is in the area of decision-making.
I have often said that local government is about as pure a form of government as possible. There are 565 local governments across this nation but generally, the same as Dubbo City Council, they consist of Councillors who receive information relating to decisions in documents that are generally available to the public. Councillors read the information, speak to residents and staff and then walk into a chamber and put their hand up to vote based on their opinion on what is best for their community. Councillors, by law, are not allowed to be driven by caucus rulings so each individual is there to vote on what they believe.
As pure as this sounds, there is the small issue with lack of expertise in the decision making process. This democratic process seems all peachy keen until you realise that you have a group of Councillors, in any Council, with a variety of backgrounds making decisions on items that require specific knowledge. One of the shortest Council meetings I remember attending was an extraordinary Council meeting in 2006 to decide on the final tender and budget for our water treatment plant. The meeting was opened by the Mayor of the day, the recommendation was moved and seconded and we voted unanimously in favour of the proposal. That was $23 million approved in five minutes! Yet I have witnessed Councils debate for an hour whether we should have car parking spaces 2.76 metres wide or 2.9 metres wide. This is a common example of Parkinson’s law of triviality: “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.”
In the water treatment plant example, it is difficult for Councillors to have enough expertise in something as complex and detailed as a water treatment plant to fully understand the intricate details of upgrading the plant from 50 megalitres per day to 80 megalitres per day. Was a 39 megalitre powdered activated carbon tank large enough? Is the clarifier diameter of 33 metres and depth of 6.4 metres suitable for the output required? Is it feasible to work that in parallel with the existing clarifier? Is 2016 the right number of nozzles to have in each of the six filters of 235 cubic metres? I think you start to get the picture. I have no idea about the validity of these numbers. I am not an expert in the construction of a water treatment plant and we engaged experts in the field to design this water treatment plant. What we have to do is make logical, common-sense decisions based on the information in front of us. We also need to be confident of the knowledge of the people giving us advice.
In relation to the car park width, let me be sexist for a moment. There are at least two things that every male is an expert in. Driving a car and making love. Tell me the last time you heard a male tell you he is a terrible driver. We all think the only difference between Jamie Whincup and ourselves is the car we drive. So when it comes to the exact width of a car parking space, a Council consisting of mostly males will debate ad nauseam the virtues of different widths of car parking spaces. We all drive a car so we can relate to something as trivial as the width of a car park. At the end of a meeting, everyone pats themselves on the back for having the fortitude to bring the argument forward and effect change. When we drive past the car park after it has been constructed, we again congratulate ourselves for making a positive difference in our community.
There is no doubt in my mind the hardest part about the decision making process in a democratic society is having decision makers who can analyse the cold hard facts, remove their own individual knowledge and circumstances and look at the big picture to arrive at the best overall decision. Having critical and analytical thinking skills is something that I believe is challenging for decision makers in a democratic society. I don’t have the easy answer to that one – for the moment I just have the question.
Let me know if you have the answer to my quandary at firstname.lastname@example.org