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Expectations and realities of digital public spaces: A case study of digital community engagement in Melbourne, Australia

Ian McShane and Bhavna Middha

Abstract

This article analyses expectations and experiences of digital public spaces that facilitate community engagement with urban planning. While viewing digital spaces as part of an expanding repertoire of public spaces and events – physical and digital – that signify the participatory turn in municipal governance, we argue that local officials and residents are overly optimistic about the democratic and administrative capacities of the digital sphere. Through a case study from Melbourne, Australia – a city with significant growth pressures – we argue that the experience of new participatory digital platforms falls short of expectations, for both residents and officials. Data show that well-documented problems with established modes of community engagement such as agenda control and ‘black boxing’ of responses, are replicated in on-line settings. The wariness residents have of administrators and elected officials are overlaid by new concerns of digital distrust and digital exclusion. For officials, using these digital spaces effectively requires time to develop and apply new skills. Our study suggests that digital spaces are not homogenous but are made up of diverse and complex practices and interrelationships. The multiplex relationships making up these digital spaces suggest that strategic and contextual combinations of online and offline engagement may be a path towards inclusive and democratic community engagement.

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Introduction

1The establishment of digital public space to facilitate community engagement is a significant international development in urban planning and governance (Aicholzer et al. 2016). Despite, or perhaps because of, a lack of clear findings about the long-term effects of citizen engagement on democratic legitimacy (Zakhour 2020), enthusiasm for e-participation has grown apace, further quickened by its presumptive potential to compensate for the constraints of COVID-19 (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2020). The use of digital public spaces for engagement and deliberation is seen by municipal governments as accessible and efficient, convenient and cost-effective ways to consult with citizens or undertake more participatory processes involving citizens in decision-making (Deseriis 2021). The expectation is that such spaces can provide inclusive, deliberative arenas which do not privilege powerful institutionalised actors (Toots 2019). Web platforms and social media channels have been purpose-built for such processes, and place-making consultants have expanded their scope to become digital intermediaries in urban development proposals (Christensen 2019).

2This article adopts Schäfer’s (2015: 322) definition of digital public space as “a communicative sphere provided or supported by online or social media…where participation is open and freely available, where matters of common concern can be discussed, and where proceedings are visible to all”. There is a useful ambiguity in Schäfer’s words here. A communicative sphere supported by digital media might be a physical public space. Such a view is consistent with digital anthropologists Horst and Miller’s (2012: 3) rejection of a digital/non-digital binary that presupposes greater authenticity or reality to non-digital life: “humanity is not one iota more mediated by the rise of the digital”. Accordingly, we argue that the increasing use of digital public space by municipal governments underscores the social and political significance of public engagement places and events in their various forms and spatio-temporalities (web platforms, town halls, pop-ups and drop-ins, community meetings, protests), as well as their diverse communicative aspects. Indeed, one aim of this article is to demonstrate the complex and strategic blending of on-line and off-line modes of engagement, particularly adopted by residents, in the politically charged arena of urban planning and development.

3This article employs a spatial analysis to examine the expectations and realities of digital public spaces used for community engagement in Melbourne, Australia. Spatial analysis has two purposes in this paper. First, the paper responds to a call by Davoudi (2012) for a spatial perspective on planning issues which includes community and digital engagement. The spatial turn in planning contends that space and place matter not only in the social and economic aspects of localities, but as constitutive of the socio-political challenges of the world (Davoudi 2012). Second, we adopt an interpretivist conception of spatiality that provides understandings beyond reductionist or positivist perspectives and emphasises “fluidity, reflexivity, contingency, connectivity, multiplicity and polyvocality(Davoudi and Strange 2009: 37). In tune with this, our spatial analysis offers a relational and contextual perspective in exploring the gap between expectations and realities/lived experiences. A relational ontology is based on the premise that a whole, in our case space, is heterogenous and made up of different entities linked together, such as physical space, practices, humans and more than human (Muller 2015). The framework of expectations and realities has been used by scholars in diverse fields, including marketing, psychology, and local government service provision (Donnelly et al. 1994). Such widespread use of the framework may perhaps be explained by its metaphysical character. As Castoriadis and Ricoeur (2016) contend “we are always immerged in a dialectic relationship between a horizon of expectations and a space made of experience” (cited in Bory 2020: 3). Scholars have found this framing useful in analysing hopes and promises invested in digital information and communication technologies (ICTs) (Pardo et al. 2009). Through spatial analysis the relational and the dynamic aspects of digital community engagement are highlighted in this paper.

4The article draws on semi-structured interviews, selected data from a digital ethnography of local councils and resident activists’ social media pages, and qualitative responses from a survey of residents, organised interests, civil servants and elected officials in seven inner-urban municipalities of Melbourne. The data suggest that while the proponents of digital community engagement, particularly via municipal web portals, make significant claims for the democratic potential and administrative efficiency of digital participation, experience of the new processes falls short of expectations, not only for residents, but for administrators too. Well-documented problems with conventional forms of community engagement, such as control of agendas and ‘black boxing’ of responses , are – for residents - replicated in on-line engagement. Issues of low trust and wariness of administrators and elected officials are overlaid by new concerns of digital distrust and digital exclusion. On the other hand, officials expressed concerns over the knowledge, skills and time required to adequately process feedback from digital sources, especially social media. What the data suggest is that, rather than digital spaces replacing conventional face-to-face spaces of consultation and participation, we are seeing the emergence of hybrid and strategic combinations of on-line and off-line practices and spaces.

5The article proceeds thus: following a review of literature focussing on digital engagement and its articulation with spatial analysis, we outline the context of our study (Melbourne) and our field research and data. The discussion that follows analyses the data through three relational spaces: engagement spaces, data spaces, and community spaces. We argue that these spaces (or spatialities) are produced through the interplay of expectations and realities of digital community engagement. A concluding summary identifies challenges and opportunities for digital engagement in urban planning and development.

Literature Review

6Citizen engagement in urban planning, first systematically advocated in the 1960s, has been variously framed as collaborative, deliberative and communicative planning, depending on the political and institutional frameworks adopted by proponents (Slaev et al. 2019). The emphasis on failure in the participation literature (Innes and Booher 2004) impelled interest in the communicative potential of digital ICTs to widen participation and knowledge inputs, introduce innovation and overcome institutional blockages (Evans-Cowley and Hollander 2010, Hanzl 2007). However, an expanding body of empirical research questions the optimistic strand of e-participation literature (Zakhour 2020). Drawing on a survey of more than 500 Australian municipal officials, Freeman (2016) argued that governments were reluctant to cede control, preferring to use digital tools for one-way communication. Reddick (2011) argued that citizens used e-government for management purposes rather than advanced consultative or participative activities. Steinmetz et al. (2020: 6) summarise empirical studies of the use of social media platforms by Australian local authorities, concluding that “social media and Web 2.0 could be used as a mechanism to raise awareness and inform the community of planning projects, but the extent to which the platform could be used as a participatory ‘tool’ was not conclusive”. However, they argue, social media has been particularly used by residents when immediate collective action is perceived as necessary.

7The extent and effects of citizen engagement in digital public spaces is contested. Schäfer (2015) argues that digital public spaces have widened participation and deliberation but fostered a less civil discourse than face-to-face settings. Kubicek (2010), addressing the use of digital public space in urban planning, is sceptical of claims about their democratic and deliberative qualities. As spaces for democratic dialogue, argues Toots (2019), digital platforms are under significant pressure to satisfy the interests of a range of stakeholders (citizens, interest groups, civil servants, politicians) while delivering an inviting and functional experience. The expectations for digital public spaces are high, potentially setting them up for failure.

8Deseriis (2021), drawing on the work of Lincoln Dahlberg, challenges a widespread assumption that digital democracy is a singular or unitary “space”, arguing that distinctive democratic theories and practices are associated with different digital affordances:

First, by enabling voter choice and preference aggregation, e-petition websites and e-voting affordances engender…a liberal-individualist conception of democracy. Second, email lists, online forums, and social networking sites…support a deliberative conception of democracy. Third, alternative media networks and actions of electronic civil disobedience epitomize the emergence of online counter-publics. Finally, open-source software and peer-to-peer networks enable the creation of digital commons, which embody an Autonomous-Marxist conception of democracy.

(Deseriis 2021:2454)

9The discursive construction of digital space, though, extends well beyond its rhetorical use by Deseriis (2021) and others to provide the central imaginaire of the Internet. It is beyond our scope to canvass the extensive literature on this topic (for a useful summary see Cohen 2007). We can, though, observe the tenacity of this construction in the opening sentence of a recent analysis of metaphors underpinning Internet law: “[t]he Internet is the digital reincarnation of a Greek agora or a Roman forum” (Mezei and Vertes-Olteanu 2020). The more specific concept of digital public space has been applied to a range of settings sharing characteristics of public access and participation (see for example, Hemment et al.’s (2013) concept of digital public space as an online cultural archive). Our use of the concept, following Schäfer (2015), invokes a communicative sphere where online affordances enable what Legacy (2010) views as historically distinct spaces of community engagement and spaces of planning professionals to come into dialogue through participatory planning.

Why a spatial analysis?

10Few studies link digital and urban spaces, especially as they connect and interrelate to form and shape urban environments locally (Lim 2014). Foundational work depicting a spatial turn in humanities and the social sciences, especially by thinkers such as Lefebvre, Massey, Harvey and Soja, builds on the relational and the contextual to establish spatial analysis as an important tool for social theory. According to Lefebvre (1991), space is constitutive of social relations, a tool to produce, control and sometimes dominate social practices, and these practiced spaces constitute specific ways of thinking about society. Foucault (1984: 246) insists that studying spatial relations is imperative as “it is somewhat arbitrary to try to disassociate the effective practice of freedom by people, the practice of social relations and the spatial distributions in which they find themselves. If they are separated, they become impossible to understand”. Lim (2015: 123) continues this theme: “[p]ower relations, like other social relations, unfold in space. To think about power and counter-power is, therefore, to invoke a set of spatial relations”. If community engagement seeks to establish relationships and information flows, and democratise decision-making (if not necessarily achieve consensus), then it is important to study how space shapes these decisions.

11McRoberts (2013: 24) argues that while public spaces are physical environments, “‘the public space’ is a more ephemeral term, capturing the conceptual nexus of the public and the resources that are readily accessible for its benefit”. Tierney (2013) invokes Habermas to lament the loss of public spaces, such as town meetings, salons, cafes or union halls where people meet, independent of the state. Habermas considered print media in the same way: all are sites of democratic discussion. Habermas argues that although these ideals of public space have endured in the twentieth century, the public spaces themselves have not (Tierney 2013). Miraftab (2004) distinguishes between invented and invited spaces. The former are associated with grassroots organisations that contest the status quo; the latter, while grassroots, are recognised and legitimised by governments. Brought forward from feminist literature, these understandings of different spaces highlight how participation has often ignored community building, care work and collective consumption produced by women, by dichotomising engagement and spaces as public/private, active/passive and wants/needs (Miraftab 2004).

12Social media technologies, argues Tierney (2013), do not play the same role as discursive space, not simply because of their exposure to the biopolitics of surveillance, but because of their unstable dependence on the technological. Social media spaces become participatory, argues Lim (2014), when they are networked, communicative and political. According to Lim, while social media are social and not conducive to rational and deliberative communication, the dialectics of how they are used locally, as a mundane sociality but turning political when required, facilitates “a culture that helps establish a foundation, a training ground and a learning space for individuals to express…opinions, to exercise…rights and to collaborate with others” (Lim, 2012: 19). It is this participatory culture that is “employed” to sustain social movements (Lim 2014). We argue this analysis applies to civic engagement as well.

13Using social movements as her case study, Lim argues that a spatial analysis of cyber space reveals it to be not only a site for but also a part of a struggle for discursive power. She further asserts that this hybrid space’s “fluidity and resilience suggest that cyber urban space will continue to be part of any future social movement, presenting new possibilities as well as new complexities and challenges for protests, imaginaries, practices, and trajectories” (Lim 2015: 123). This is because, space is not merely a location, or a container in which power relations are negotiated, resisted, and challenged. Rather, space frequently constitutes an object of contestation (of power) in its own right. Power works in and over spaces. According to Lim (2015: 118), “[c]yber urban spaces provide sites for contestations of power (and counter-power) and are themselves part of the contest over access, control, and representation”. Extending the locus of Lim’s analysis, this paper scrutinises the interplay between digital media and physical spaces, focussing on spatially and temporally lived experiences of engagement.

Context of the study and methods

14This article contributes to a multinational project Democratic Urban Development in the Digital Age (DEMUDIG) funded by the Norwegian Research Council. The project has field sites in Oslo, Madrid and Melbourne. This paper focusses on Melbourne, to generate context dependent knowledge and provide a platform for separate comparative analysis (Flyvbjerg 2001).

15In recent decades, Melbourne has been one of the global north’s fastest growing cities, driven largely by Australia’s relatively high rates of immigration and policy preference for migrants of family-formation age. Together with substantial international investment in high-rise residential towers, this has led to densification, vertical and horizontal sprawl, and spiralling housing costs, with a particular impact on the inner-urban region. Urban development projects – including residential and infrastructure such as major roads – have generated significant community protest, directed at both local and state governments (Legacy 2016). The governance of metropolitan Melbourne, comprising 31 local government authorities, is highly segmented, and relatively ‘weak’ in terms of fiscal and statutory powers and opportunities for participatory governance, compared to Madrid and Oslo. By contrast, the governance of Madrid and Oslo is structured by a single and more powerful metropolitan-scale city government, with each city also having more granular district-level representative and consultative bodies. Notably, large urban development processes in metropolitan Melbourne are within the jurisdiction of the Victorian state government. Urban development is increasingly developer-led or organised through public-private partnerships, consistent with Victoria’s early and aggressive adoption of neo-liberalism (Costar and Economou 1999). These features introduce planning conflicts between jurisdictions and transfer the political risks of poor development to local authorities.

Map 1: Metropolitan Melbourne, with the seven inner city councils included in the survey

Map 1: Metropolitan Melbourne, with the seven inner city councils included in the survey

16Methods to generate data used in this analysis consisted of semi-structured interviews conducted with 14 participants including local and state government officials, either involved in community consultation, collecting or analysing community feedback, or in developing digital platforms (n=7), elected councillors (n=1), private digital platform developers (n=4), and resident activists (n=2). Recruitment was done via publicly available email addresses, networks and snowballing. The interviews were conducted mainly in the cities of Melbourne and Maribyrnong as they were the primary sites of study. We used Qualtrics online survey software to develop and administer a survey targeting residents and organised interests in a broader area than the interviews, expanding to seven Melbourne inner city councils, all experiencing significant development pressures, receiving in total 176 responses. The online survey targeted three groups: 1) residents, businesses and organised interests involving both, and non-government and non-profit organisations (n=100); 2) civil servants in the local and state government organisations (n=70); 3) politicians and elected officials in the selected area (n=16). The survey asked residents questions about their experience of engagement with local and state governments on issues of urban development in their areas. This also included their engagement, if any, using digital media, whether social media or dedicated platforms of government organisations. The survey also included open-ended questions that encouraged participants to express their views freely on urban development issues and digital community engagement. The data and quotes used from the survey are derived from the responses to an open-ended question asked at the end of all three questionnaires:

17Q1)Is there something you would like to add? (For example, about digital engagement or how governments engage with communities). (For residents and civil servants)

18Q2) What are your two main challenges handling input from stakeholders? (for civil servants)

19All responses quoted in the text are to Q1 unless otherwise noted.

20Recruitment for the questionnaire was done through email contact, with email addresses gathered first by searching for publicly available email addresses (n=210), and second by snowballing through known contacts. A Facebook page dedicated to the DEMUDIG project was created, where paid geographically targeted posts promoted the questionnaire over a three-month period. This method emulated similar recruitment campaigns through social media (Ali et al. 2020). Other methods included sending LinkedIn messages to a database of contacts (n=150), advertising on university/research centre websites and media pages, and promotion of the survey in an online journal (Middha and McShane 2020).

21The number of participants in the survey, especially civil servants and elected officials, was less than Oslo and Madrid, where the same survey was administered. Several factors may have contributed to this result, including COVID-19 and associated lockdowns in Melbourne (specifically cited by some officers in local councils responding to phone calls from the authors), survey or respondent fatigue (as Leider et al. (2016) observe, a greater focus on practice-based research and evaluation has resulted in a substantial survey burden for some practitioners), and concerns over participation in surveys or interviews, particularly associated with the uses by public servants of social media (Cooper, 2020). Nevertheless, the open-ended survey questions generated rich qualitative data.

22The final method used was digital ethnography where the authors followed social media pages of the councils under study and the pages of some resident groups campaigning on current development issues, notably a group known as Save Footscray Park (SFP). This high-profile resident campaign in the city of Maribyrnong coincided with our research. As detailed below, the campaign to prevent the Maribyrnong City Council transferring a large public green space to a national football club to build a private stadium (Fowler 2019) illustrates well the argument advanced in this article about the strategic combinations of online and offline engagement.

Table 1: Methods and participants

Stakeholder

Interviews

Survey

Digital ethnography

Residents/organised interests/campaigns

2

100

Digital Platform providers

4

NA

NA

Civil servants/councils

7 (from 2 councils and the state government)

60 (from 7 councils and 2 state organisations)

2 councils (Melbourne and Maribyrnong)

Elected officials

1

16

NA

Table 2: Details of participants quoted

Participants

Role/city

Method for data collection

R1

Resident (Yarra)

Survey

R2

Resident (Maribyrnong)

Survey

R3

Resident (Maribyrnong)

Survey

R4

Resident (Yarra)

Survey

R5

Resident (Yarra)

Survey

R6

Resident (Darebin)

Survey

R7

Resident (Port Philip)

Survey

R8

Resident (Maribyrnong)

Survey

R9

Resident (Yarra)

Survey

R10

Resident (Port Philip)

Survey

R11

Resident (Maribyrnong)

Survey

R12

Resident (Maribyrnong)

Survey

R13

Resident (Maribyrnong)

Survey

R14

Resident (Yarra)

Survey

R15

Resident (Yarra)

Survey

C1

Community engagement (Melbourne)

Interview

C2

City planner (Maribyrnong)

Interview

C3

Civil servant (Melbourne)

Survey

C4

Civil servant (Melbourne)

Survey

C5

State Government official (Media and communications)

Survey

C6

Community engagement (Maribyrnong)

Interview

P1

Councillor (Melbourne)

Survey

P2

Councillor (Moreland)

Survey

Spatialities of expectations and realities in digital community engagement

23Local authorities are mandated by Victorian state legislation to engage with their communities (Christensen 2019), although engagement agenda are typically determined by the local authority rather than through dialogue with residents or businesses. Some Melbourne local authorities have experimented with participatory budgeting (Christensen and Grant 2016). Historically, local authorities have merely complied with a basic requirement to publicise council annual budgets and plans formulated by administrators.

24In recent years, though, both state and local government organizations in Melbourne have experimented with e-participation, developing their own digital community engagement platforms. Consultants increasingly conduct engagement processes on behalf of public institutions (Christensen 2019). These platforms are typically justified as responding to the need for local authorities to provide information and improve services. Participation is typically imagined as a dialogue, enabling the collective knowledge and expertise of the local community to be harnessed to inform urban and local development. Governments perceive that the benefits of participation extend beyond problem-solving to contribute to more sustainable environments and more resilient and healthy local communities (Legard et al. 2019). The City of Maribyrnong exemplifies current approaches within the local jurisdiction. Maribyrnong has its own (commercially developed) community engagement platform Your City Your Voice (YCYV). The YCYV website welcomes participants (from any location) to the online community engagement site and presents the site as a “space for you to contribute your ideas and feedback on key decisions and priorities for our community(Maribyrnong, 2021a).

Figure 1: Screenshot of the City of Maribyrnong’s Your City Your Voice digital community consultation platform (Maribyrnong, 2021a)

25Maribyrnong, like other local councils, also uses social media (Facebook, Twitter) for community engagement. These channels are geared for one-way information flows to their followers (Figure 2). Maribyrnong’s four-year strategic plan for community engagement emphasises the need for officials to develop “digital competence” in the use of these tools (Maribyrnong, 2014), but competence is deployed to ensure the community “understands” council initiatives: “[w]e will use available tools, including our website, to ensure our community understand what engagement activities are planned or occurring(Maribyrnong. 2021b).

Figure 2: Councils use social media primarily to disseminate information and notifications.

26The design and rhetoric of YCYV and the other council platforms (“your voice” or “your say” feature in the titles of several of the engagement platforms), raises the question: whose voice? On what basis are problems or proposals registered? Who accesses the digital public square, and with what expectations? Is the promise of ‘having your say’ realised through the practices of digital engagement? What, if anything, is distinctive about engagement through digital platforms? These questions frame the following analysis of the interview and survey data. We identify three relational spaces produced through the interplay of the expectations and realities of digital community engagement: engagement spaces, data spaces and community spaces. These categories are presented as a (heuristic) contrast of expectations and realities of that relational space, with an understanding that these expectations and realities are fluid and ever changing across space and time. This is followed by a discussion on challenges and opportunities for better participatory procedures.

Engagement spaces

27The data showed that many residents expected local authorities to use digital ICTs as part of an adaptive suite of engagement modes, digital and physical, depending on the issue in hand. 50% of our survey respondents reported that they had used digital/social media for engagement with the council and 60% of survey respondents considered digital engagement less time consuming than other ways to engage and an effective way to get attention. However, concerns to balance efficiency and local democracy in this domain reflect a long-standing tension in local governance (Aulich 1999), and some policy areas are seen as requiring face-to-face deliberative discussion. According to one resident:

Councils aren't keeping up with digital engagement. They still run face to face 'advisory committees' when they could reach many more people with an app that offered easy to use surveys. This would be the most effective way to conduct engagement for small issues. Also, Councils fail to invest in citizens' juries. These are the most effective way to conduct engagement for big, difficult issues, such as pricing parking or allocating street space. (R1)

28Lim’s (2014) contention that social media offers a social space that turns political, mobilising a counter-public when required, is clearly borne out by the invented space described by the following survey response from a resident:

We live in a very tightly knit community and are constantly using Facebook groups to solve local problems. For example, the COVID pandemic has seen our neighbourhood source and distribute masks via Facebook groups. And I'm a member of women's online neighbourhood groups where women assist each other. On these forums, people might share petitions or discuss local issues but they're not necessarily about 'development'. (R2)

29Similarly, the following lament of the demise of local newspapers (endemic in Australia’s highly concentrated media industry) in an open text response by a resident, found solace in the communicative and political potential of social media:

Councils do what they want, and just make out to give lip service to a system. Right wing politicians just bulldoze through environmental concerns. People are making their own social justice and finding our own solutions with Local Facebook Groups. The local newspapers are dying - and were a very good source of communication but they are gone. (R3)

30This sentiment is exemplified by the Save Footscray Park (SFP) group’s Facebook page (Figure 3). The SFP Facebook page quickly built a counter-public that mobilised in both digital and physical space. The group’s presence at a face-to-face council meeting sufficiently alarmed officials that they suspended the meeting, invoking occupational health and safety concerns. Social media may have coordinated and galvanised the group, but it was the expressive politics in the formal space of local democracy, the Town Hall, that was most successful in ultimately defeating the proposed alienation of the park. The invented spaces (Miraftab 2004) of sociality, communication and indeed activism, stand in contrast to and sometimes replace the customised professional digital platforms that local and state governments have envisaged as the primary methods of digital engagement.

Figure 3: A snapshot of the Save Footscray Park Facebook page

Data spaces

31Discourses of technological determinism and ecological modernisation influencing the adoption of digital community engagement and other digital strategies deployed by governments (Hynes 2012) assert that datafied processes bring new efficiencies and insights. However, this conviction ignores the relationality of the material technologies with the social, cultural and communicative aspects of digital technologies, as we show in this section. Our data highlighted contrasting views of the social and functional affordances of the digital platforms and the utility of data that is obtained. It highlighted feelings of uncertainty, as experienced by civil servants, in the data produced through social media and other digital platforms, and illustrated wariness of intermediaries, particularly community engagement consultants. This circumspect view of the technologies, though, influenced a tactical approach to their deployment, especially by resident groups.

Interactions with digital media

32In contrast to the sociality of social media for some groups of residents highlighted in the section above, our data revealed an inherent distrust of digital media as an engagement tool, for residents as well as for civic authorities. This distrust and ambiguity operate at various levels, focussing on both social media users and the data that is produced through such engagements. One resident claimed that:

Digital engagement by governments is often only through Facebook which is both inherently untrusted by many people and not used at all by younger people. (R4)

33Some resident survey respondents believed in

…proceed[ing] with caution that technologies are an answer to the questions of community or civic municipality….Conversations need to discuss alternative grassroots options! (R6)

Maybe in the initial stages digital is useful to gain a wider audience, but face to face usually achieves the better result in the long run when there is a clash of views. (R7)

34Some resident survey respondents, though, are wary of “armchair engagement”:

I feel like local digital engagement is often a cop out so that Council does not need to face angry or disgruntled residents. It’s armchair engagement with outcomes decided already in many cases. The Footscray Park debacle was a perfect example of this where council does what it wants and then goes thru the farce of engagement. There is a broad feeling that councillors are more interested in using council as a steppingstone to political careers and therefore, do not rock the boat with State government. (R12)

35Social media activism is sufficiently established to have been labelled apptivism (for further details Lewis 2020). While there are differing opinions about its effectiveness and ethics, it has been acknowledged as a powerful resource and meeting space.

36In the City of Maribyrnong’s case, Facebook and other social media were also distrusted as effective tools by civil servants, despite the council including it in a four-year communication strategy. Concerns focussed on the incivility of the dialogue and the ‘messiness’ of the data. Rather, data gathered through the council’s own web platform was considered more reliable by a city planner (C2) in the City of Maribyrnong:

Facebook doesn’t help for sure. It is a terrible tool for engagement… it promotes our keyboard warriors too much...It’s good to get the message out there for people to look at. We tried that in planning, and it failed. So, we put in links to surveys, but not for comments. So, Your City Your Voice is where we encourage people to comment. We have done Survey Monkey in the past. All [those] kind of platforms [are] good, and you can get all kinds of data. You can see instant data to guide you. I think, councils need to adopt more digital platforms, and see what else is out there. And engage with the consultation process, also wider…The way of the future is digital, and Your City Your Voice is helpful, but we need more options out there.

37According to a community engagement expert from a well-resourced inner-city council, this challenge of managing online and offline community engagement demands a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between online and offline practices:

We are not a big fan of only online. There might be sometimes when it’s only face to face, when it’s a sensitive issue…that is where we would have intimate contact. But generally speaking, more the better. The IAP 2 methodology very clearly says maximum public engagement. (C1)

Processing data generated through social/digital media

38At the same time, a few civil servants complained that social media is an ambiguous space, and no clear instructions existed for utilising the information produced there. For one City of Melbourne community engagement expert, this was due to a general lack of resources and clarity at the council level.

In the transport strategy, what we found was that Instagram was great for conversation, and the stories were used for creating messaging. But our conundrum was, are we using that or not, should we be explicit and say that we are? So, if someone puts a comment there, do we use it, because there are some people do think that the comment will be responded to, and some are sure they won’t? So, I think we should be making it explicit, if we are or not. (C1)

39Indeed, civil servants, responding to the open text question in the survey, insist that a unique set of skills and time is required to process data from digital spaces:

In my experience, there is not a lot of support and resource for digital engagement teams. Nor is there understanding that it's a unique role that combines not only understanding in community engagement methodologies but experience in digital interactions and experience design. (C3)

40C4 lists handling the feedback received as one of the main challenges with community enagement (Q2), a view shared by a state government official (C5):

Bureaucracy makes it difficult (impossible) to respond in a timely manner to enquiries coming in through social media, in particular. A comment will be handled by four different people before it gets to the subject matter expert, who can't engage directly but must go back through all the channels. (C4)

Processing the volume of requests in a timely manner. Providing sufficient support to undertake efficient qualitative analysis on stakeholder feedback. (C5 responding to Q2)

41This brings us to the technological constraints that are unique and new to the field of community engagement. E-participation has a technological facet unlike face-to-face spaces and a political facet, just like face-to-face spaces, that creates additional challenges, including that of digital exclusion. An elected official responded to the open text question in the survey:

The digital divide remains very real. People need to be educated and persuaded to engage this way. (P1)

42Another elected official explains the limitation of digital engagement as more of a time and attention span issue, rather than a technological problem.

Digital platforms tend to promote negative concerns rather than solutions. They also tend to work in ‘grabs’ where a more nuanced assessment of a planning matter does not get aired. The emotion and concern get to feature mostly, while people respond to others views/comments, and the substantive issues can tend to get lost in the string (linear) ‘discussion’. People tend to dip in and out of the discussion making it more challenging to arrive at an agreed position for example. And leaving more people dissatisfied with the process and the outcome. Whereas having a meeting where participants can all hear from each other and key stakeholders, may mean that people can better assess an application or it’s shortcomings with multiple viewpoints being shared together during the meeting. (P2)

43A resident survey respondent observed a tendency for engagement through social media to be dominated by the ‘loudest voice’, requiring moderation through other engagement strategies:

I find that using social media is often related to "Not in my backyard” activism, which is why I don't like it much as a form of community engagement. It gives a louder voice to the ones opposing new development, with the ones who tend to agree not being heard, as they're not as active or "agitated". This is similar to analog NIMBY groups, but I feel that social media enlarges the problem. Digital engagement through the government I think is fine but needs to be complementary to other forms. (R5)

Mediating data gathering: methods and professionals

44While the digitisation of community engagement promised an improvement in the participation experience and even an increase in opportunities for deliberation, some community members have had difficulty using bespoke council-run digital platforms. These issues are mainly related to the way sites are designed and the type of data they generate. As several resident survey respondents commented:

Government use of digital platforms is generally push-polling, using questions with restricted answers to get the results they want. They then use these results as evidence for the wider community. (R8)

The questions often used during digital engagement feel loaded at times and simplistic. i.e.. "Do you support more open space in Yarra?" They produce great motherhood statements like "90% of those surveyed agree" but [this] doesn't help nut out the nitty-gritty aspects where people often find themselves in disagreements about the implementation of the Strategy. (R9)

As well, govt surveys only ask the questions and responses in surveys they want to hear so this can distort responses even when you do reply. (R10)

45This ‘black-boxing’ of responses is seen as limiting by the residents who responded to the open text question in the survey and creates further distrust in the process. Black-boxing refers to a situation where emphasis is put on outputs rather than examining the kind of methodologies used to generate an evidence base (Rydin et al. 2018). While digital community engagement providers point to the availability of multiple methods and tools, these are limited in their use and analysis, mainly because of the time and money involved. On the other hand, following Davoudi (2012), Rydin et al. (2018, p. 230) criticise the limitations of a planning approach that emphasises “objective fact finding”, arguing for an “interpretive stance that includes shared and common understandings of place and space” as well as lived experiences of people as part of the plurality of knowledge that is accessed for decision making.

46The complexities of gathering and interpreting data also results in engagement of outside experts or professionals, creating further distrust in the system. Many councils have inhouse digital platforms, but increasingly employ professional community engagement experts for both face to face and digital participation events. Residents expressed their displeasure at the rise of “professionals” in the community enagagement space, seen most clearly in the commissioning of digital platforms mediating relationships between councils and the community.

The rise of community engagement 'professionals' has resulted in a decline in authentic engagement between citizens and their elected representatives. The community engagement 'professionals' are increasingly being utilised as 'shields' and 'gate keepers'. (R11)

47Latour describes this as a “a whole dexis of disinterest” (Latour 2010: 211) overseen by experts with no local affiliation. While bringing in professionals provides supplementary skills, especially digital skills, analysis and implementation is still a task left to planners and other civil servants.

Community spaces

48The rhetoric of digital community engagement rests on expectations that local jurisdictions can be imagined as a (singular or homogenous) community. However, the data show processes of segmentation and filtering at work in digital community engagement, through the engagement strategies of local authorities. Geographic, age, and cultural markers (or assumptions) form the structural elements here, challenging the idea of the local government jurisdiction constituting a single community. An alternative way of imagining this process and its outcomes is to picture it as a form of socio-cultural urban splintering, to invoke Graham and Marvin’s (2002) much quoted thesis, a process that leads to contrasting expectations and realities of engagement, and even outcomes. The tensions that are seen in this relational space are first, to do with physical borders and how they are treated by residents and civic authorities differently, especially given the affordances of the digital media and second, how stereotypical categorisation of communities may sometimes mean some groups do not participate fully in community engagement processes, digital or analogue.

Geographical bordering and unbordering

49Digital spaces have boundaries beyond the local context, and this characteristic can impinge significantly on local deliberations. Whether the vehicles are web platforms or social media, councils and residents struggle with the reality of opinions and influence from outside local boundaries. One resident expressed displeasure, in their survey response, at the council’s deliberate tactics in this area.

My local Council engages in push-polling and uses digital engagement to reach out to interest groups such as sports clubs outside our municipality whom they know will support Council's plans which are against the wishes of local residents. Frankly it is a disgrace. (R13)

50Another resident advocated filtering engagement through geography or project type. The City of Melbourne’s place-based approach attempts something along these lines, with a resident describing that council’s disposition in the open text answer to the survey:

Neither Local nor State Government are using digital tools in an optimal manner. Each Government, eg. the City of Yarra, should have a "Your Say Yarra" smartphone app, giving users full control over how they receive alerts. For example, by project type or geographic location. The app can lead users to a brief survey or enable them to offer longer responses. User profiles can enable Council to measure if responses have been received from all cohorts of the community, or to analyse responses by cohort. The app can give updates and news on each project. (R14)

Mobilising socio-economic demographics

51Geography plays a role in how civic action, whether digital or face to face, is organised. There was ample indication in our survey that people who were highly engaged in traditional/conventional forms of protest were also using digital channels to get their point across to the local government and to the wider community. Human capital and financial resources are acknowledged as primary determinants of getting heard. As a Maribyrnong council official commented in their interview:

[Community engagement] is always a challenge particularly due to the multiculturalism, and also because of the change from industrial to residential, and also because our area has become trendier or hipster. There is one small area here that now has the highest number of educated people. Yarraville. Their average income is higher. They are barristers, masters, PhDs…they ran a campaign with their educational and financial resources to refute our strategy… (C2)

52Segmention was also evident in age-related preferences and mismatches of engagement platforms and population cohorts. In particular, assumptions that younger age groups will somehow naturally engage through digital platforms is contested, as the comment on using Facebook to reach younger people, cited above, suggests.

53Similarly, different councils have varied experiences with the resources a community can mobilise or the level of community engagement, depending on how established, educated or politically knowledgeable the community is. Locational and cultural factors condition community consultation. As a Maribyrnong council official commented:

Maribyrnong has the second highest ethnic backgrounds among Melbourne councils. It is highest in terms of being culturally diverse, after Dandenong. These communities don’t engage, we try but they don’t. They are more accepting of the change. The low-socio- economic [SE] areas do comment, but what they want to see is different from more affluent areas, frankly. They are different. So affluent areas don’t want to see development, but low SE areas are concerned about development in their areas and how it would help them.

I have worked at Moonee Valley [an adjacent municipality], they are more 2nd and 3rd generation born there, and politically driven. It delays the process; the community does not accept change. When I came here, it was a bit different. For example, in Moonee Valley we would get 10 to 15 objections to every project, and here we get one or two…. What I can say is that the community there then was less accepting of change, and I am assuming now after ten years it still is. Stuff that is happening in Footscray and what we have in the masterplan would not happen in other councils’ masterplans. The community is more accepting here. (C2)

54The analysis in the sections above illustrates some of the tensions between expectations and realities of digital community engagement spaces as they are enacted through practice (Stock & Jonas 2015). The expectation of the government is that digital engagement can expand these spaces to include more people, diverse viewpoints and hard-to-reach communities, as well as to include more projects.

55This expansive view was reflected in comments by the Maribyrnong local government officials:

There is a far higher expectation from the community to get involved. I don’t think twenty years back, the community expected to. And there is a push from the State government to do more community engagement… to put it bluntly, my view is that this is seen to be the flavour of the day…Sometimes you are in the middle level of IAP2 [International Association for Public Participation], but to get to the extreme level, there isn’t the time or resources every time. (C6)

So, lots of suburbs in Melbourne have become gentrified. So, I think that when a suburb becomes gentrified, the expectations rise. The new residents coming in want clean streets etc. So, we have to allocate more budget to making the city look good. Their concerns are very different from old ones. The previous residents are happy to have a roof over their heads, and their bread and butter. Today’s society is different to them. It becomes hard for council to do stuff, as the expectations go bigger and bigger. (C2)

56Two points of interest arise from the analysis and the comments above. First and ironically, the digital, instead of being a homogenising public space (with or without face to face/traditional participation methods) in some cases has become one more segmented category within the various categorisations of people that represent diversity in the community engagement space. While certain ethnic communities, migrants, and low socio-economic demographics were traditionally considered hard to reach, these categories now seemed to be overlayed with people who are not digitally literate (old people), do not have digital access and/or do not subscribe to or trust social media (such as Facebook for young people).

57Second, the comments indicate that expectations are not static or stable, underscored by the wistful evocation of old times by C6. Not only are expectations of increased community engagement more explicit, the use of digital ICTs is top of the agenda for the government and for some parts of the community. While there are groups, including some residents and civil servants, that may not support digitalisation of the public engagement sphere, nevertheless, digital engagement is increasingly mandated and expected, and the spaces in which it occurs need to be inclusive, democratic and effective. Governments at all levels are challenged to ‘catch up’ with the uses of digital media in the wider community (McRoberts 2013).

Digital engagements in urban planning – challenges and opportunities

58In order to take this discussion forward, the following section identifies the challenges and opportunities in the context of three relational spaces that intersect with the digital and co-produce digital engagement spaces. For some critics, digital engagement can be seen as a new form of governmentality (Vanolo 2014), further evidence of the essentially undemocratic nature of planning (Alfasi 2021). Our position is more agnostic. Evidence of the social and tactical uses of digital ICTs indicate the agency of local residents, and, as this article has demonstrated, spatial analysis enables foregrounding of the diverse repertoire of spaces of engagement.

59The assimilation of digital and social media platforms, their technologies, their varied uses and imaginaries (such as the smart city) into urban and public spaces is an iterative process (Picazo-Vela et al. 2016, Toots 2019). This article has highlighted tensions that arise where digital engagement is structured largely as information-giving or information-gathering, essentially one-way processes built around pre-determined topics. By contrast, co-creation living lab participation methods have attempted to increase participation by involving communities at all steps of the urban project (Žlender et al. 2020). Research on the living lab concept has also highlighted various challenges similar to those illustrated above. However, one important conclusion by Žlender et al. (2020) was the value, both from administrative efficiency and local democracy perspectives, of a more considered design of engagement strategies, such as the free choice of digital tools for younger populations and a focus on face to face activities for seniors. This supports our argument that contextual and localised community engagement blends digital and physical spaces.

60However, the technological and tactical dimensions of digital engagement clearly challenge some local councils included in this study, leading them to enlist professional help. On some accounts, strategies of governance such as outsourcing may contribute to a democratic deficit (Swyngedouw 2006). Our data suggest an increasing expectation that local authorities should make effective use of digital tools for participation, and it is the skills deficit that is of most concern. To counter this deficit, Rydin et al. (2018) suggest that financing or supporting community groups to be part of the technical/digital platform process, so lay and expert knowledge can come together to unblackbox the community engagement process, digitally and in face to face interactions. This may also mean abandoning mainstream categorisations of communities, with their preconceived notions or spatial imprints (Lefebvre 1991) and letting them establish and create their own identities, through practices of engagement and participation (digital and analogue) and being enabled to bring their own issues to be discussed in their own spaces or upload on the government digital platform (Cornwall 2002).

Conclusion

61This article has analysed some relational spaces that have opened up due to the interplay of expectations and realities of digital community engagement in inner city areas of Melbourne, Australia. It has assessed the nuances and specific connections that influence how the use of digital engagement spaces respond to issues of sociality and community building, socio-technical transitions and socio-economic and cultural complexities. While we see an eagerness to adopt digital technologies, and an appreciation of the opportunity for people’s everyday social engagements and activism via digital media, we also demonstrate through the data, how distrust in the affordances of these media creates issues with uptake, adding to distrust in the processes of community engagement. Methods of data generation, transparency issues and outsourced interactions are highlighted as issues that may carry over generic problems with face to face/ analogue participatory strategies to digitised spaces. Acknowledging that expectations and realities are not static and change over space and time, digital platforms have emerged as important public spaces to explore alternative trajectories of community engagement. The analysis of these relational spaces takes us beyond the dominant actors (community engagement professionals and technological advances) and enables us to recognise emergent hybrid spaces and the potential for intervening in marginal relationships (lay and contextual knowledge, new and creative methods for engagement), new capacities (local government officials as digital experts) and new knowledge of the plurality of communities (physical and perceived borders, creating self identities and participation agendas) (Müller 2015).

62The main contention that this analysis has cast doubt on is that digital public spaces may or should replace physical spaces. This contention issues a significant challenge to the increasingly strident assertion of ‘digital first’ policies by governmental authorities, a position that slips easily into a digital-only stance (New South Wales Government 2020). In a country where 2.5 million residents are not connected to the Internet (Thomas et al. 2019), such a position should be scrutinised for its democratic properties. Rather, we propose hybrid public spaces that engage a diversity of people through more channels, using methods suited to opening up, rather than closing down, dialogue around the politically charged domain of urban planning and development. This includes a commitment by local authorities to un-blackbox participatory processes. The open boundaries of digital space may at times be in tension with a local community’s expectation of being able to make local, contextual and boundaried decisions. The challenge for councils and communities to decide how and to what extent these boundaries need to be enforced is ongoing. However, development of a more sophisticated understanding of the spatial dynamics of participation, as this paper demonstrates, can assist with this challenge.

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List of illustrations

Title Map 1: Metropolitan Melbourne, with the seven inner city councils included in the survey
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References

Electronic reference

Ian McShane and Bhavna Middha, Expectations and realities of digital public spaces: A case study of digital community engagement in Melbourne, AustraliaArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 22 | 2021, Online since 15 December 2021, connection on 25 May 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/4769; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/articulo.4769

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About the authors

Ian McShane

Dr Ian McShane is associate professor at Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. His research focuses on the policy, provision and use of social infrastructure, especially education, recreation and cultural facilities, and local public broadband networks. This work explores the intersection of social infrastructure, shared use and multi-purpose spaces, cultural diversity and urban change.

Bhavna Middha

Dr Bhavna Middha is a post-doctoral research fellow at Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, with interests in everyday digital engagements, social practices, urban planning and lived experiences through a focus on spatialities. Her previous work has included ethnographic work on sustainable food consumption using digital ethnography of eating spaces and practices, digital and online food practices and lived experiences of energy retrofits and fuel poverty.

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