Each level of Government operates in complete different ways, and so it's useful to know about the inner workings and procedures, key people, and the level of potential impact your advocacy can have for each one. Engaging with your local council can be very easy and can lead to some fantastic outcomes!
Councils are made up of two parts: the elected representatives (councillors) and administration (council staff).
Councillors are democratically elected by the residents and ratepayers of the municipality. Once elected, they are responsible for reviewing matters and debating issues before their council, and making decisions.
Council staff are responsible for providing advice, implementing council’s direction and taking action on council decisions. Council officers also provide advice and expertise that help a council to form policy decisions, along with delivering services and implementing decisions. Usually the heads of departments form a group referred to as the Executive, led by the CEO.
While your local council might not be making the daily news like state and federal governments, decisions made in the local council chamber can have huge effects of your local community. Local councils are in charge of many community services, cultural centres and events, and have avenues (including cash) to support the arts.
A fantastic example of positive outcomes from engaging with local councils is Liquid Architecture, West Space, and Bus Projects who addressed the City of Yarra during budget submissions in 2020.
One important fact to know is that council staff cannot advocate to council. This means that even if they see a particular need in the community, or feel the council should support something, they are unable to recommend this to council themselves. This is why it’s so important for the community to get involved, and further highlights how engaging with your council, even in small ways, can make a difference. Council staff find it difficult to act if there is silence from the community.
Once something is on the radar of council, they may instruct staff to prepare a council report on the matter, but staff cannot instigate this themselves.
Doing your research first ensures that you are advocating from an informed place, can make the best case possible, and that you know what the Council already offers (there’s no point advocating for something that already exists!).
It’s well worth reading the Council’s four year Council plan, and/or their arts and culture policy/strategy (if there is one) to see what is on the agenda in the coming years. Get to know what arts programs are being offered, and identify any initiatives that you can link in with. You can also use these documents to check if the Council is funding/doing the things it said it would.
If your Council doesn’t have an arts and culture policy/strategy, pushing for the creation of one might be a good place to start with your advocacy!
It’s always important to make contact with relevant Council officers. Council officers are a good source of information, which you can use to your advantage; there are often projects underway, or new strategies that the officers will know about, and may be able to link you into. They are also often in charge of certain initiatives, projects, and budgets. Take any opportunity to get to know Council staff and let them know about what you are doing.
You can contact a Council officer and request a meeting, but failing that, there are other ways to make a connection; there may be a regular artists’ forum which is set up to facilitate connections, and applying for a grant is also a great excuse to make those connections with Council staff.
It is also worth noting that when contacting Councillors directly, in some Councils the Councillors may send you directly back to Officers, especially if they haven’t already engaged at the Officer level.
Firstly, keep in mind that local councillors are elected officials, and so anyone can contact and speak to them about issues that are important to them and the community.
Start by doing some research on your councillors. Look through their biographies and what their particular agenda is, and find ways to connect with that.
When deciding which councillors to contact, being bipartisan is your best bet. Even though some councillors might align more or less with your own political views, the arts is for everyone and you should be able to easily create a dialogue, regardless of their political leanings. It’s also worth paying attention to which ward your project is in (if your area has wards) - the particular Councillor for each ward will have a special interest in that area.
Send an email to your councillor and requesting a meeting, including some details about you and why you want to meet.
Go into your meeting with a clear intention. Be able to speak about what your practice/work is, and how you/your work contributes to the culture of the community.
“I want to encourage you to think about X, Y, and Z.” - you’re probably not there to get commitments to action in your first meeting, but you are giving councillors new information to think about.
If you’re lobbying for something, request to make a presentation to council. This is for very specific agendas, and an opportunity to make a case to all councillors. Presentations should be direct, clear and sharp - sometimes you might only get three minutes!
Follow up your meeting with an email stating for what asked for and what next steps and actions are. CC other people into that email, such as other Councillors.
It is also worth noting that most Councils have specific community engagement websites - at Moreland City Council for instance, it is https://conversations.moreland.vic.gov.au/ - but most Councils have them and this is a good way of engaging with a range of different topics and conversations.
Building relationships with your local councillors is a huge investment, and having an ongoing connection and communications will make it easier to have your voice heard. Keep in mind that there are lots of opportunities to stay connected, other than talking about issues:
Invitations: Invite councillors to your events! Speaking and appearance opportunities are good for them, and allows them an opportunity to speak about their values and be in the face of voters. It’s also a great opportunity for you to show them your work and its value first hand!
Celebrations: if you, your organisation, or your sector have good news to share, let your local councillors know. As well as keeping them informed it helps to reinforce their idea of the good work you are doing.
Thank You: if you appreciate the work your council is doing (maybe they held a fantastic event, or passed an impactful motion), let them know!
Remember your councillors are there to help - they care about the communities they live in! Do keep in mind though that often Councillors will have a job/career outside of their Council duties, and they only get a small stipend. Workloads and commitments can be huge.
As mentioned above, if your Council doesn’t have an arts and culture policy/strategy, tell them they need one.
Ask the Council to do an economic impact study of the arts and creative sector in their area (it easier to lobby when they have the data, which they often don’t collect).
Advocate from different perspectives – access and inclusion, health, culture, economic, participation, reputation, etc.
Be vocal to Councillors or the Council CEO about the needs and challenges in the arts. Other sectors get what they need because have the ear of Council and they lobby hard. For instance, if the Council charges too much for venue hire, tell the Council directly!
Every Council legally must put their budget out for community viewing (this usually happens any time between March - June) and this is when budget submissions from the public can be made. This is an opportunity to give feedback and suggestions on how Council allocates its money, and there is also potential for projects to be funded at this stage, particularly if you already have a relationship with the Councillors and Council Officers.