Never underestimate your citizens: Interview with Jennifer MacAllister

The Centre for Liveable Cities Singapore spoke with AECOM’s Jennifer MacAllister at the recent Singapore-Malaysia Eisenhower Fellowships Conference, where she discussed the role of communities in policy- and decision-making

People are key to building the cities of tomorrow, said the Centre of Liveable Cities (CLC) Singapore on “The Future of Urban Living” conference held recently in Singapore and Malaysia.

Jennifer MacAllister, technical director for infrastructure advisory of AECOM, a global technical and management support services company, was one of the speakers at the day-long event that CLC, an organisation under the Ministry of National Development, co-organised with the Singapore Eisenhower Fellowships Society and the Eisenhower Fellows Association Malaysia for the two organisations’ four-day conference.

MacAllister, who previously worked on strategy and policy with the New South Wales government in Australia, underscored the role communities play in policy-making and enriching society.

In this video interview with the CLC, she explained how people can be empowered to contribute to decisions that can improve cities, especially now that urban centres have become very complex.

Never underestimate your citizens, they are thoughtful, intelligent, public-minded people and they will often deliver surprising and terrific results if you just give them enough opportunity

Jennifer MacAllister, technical director for infrastructure advisory, AECOM

The CLC conference brought in various local and international leaders from the government, business and academic sectors to discuss how the right urban planning of cities can increase liveability, creativity and resilience, particularly through its residents.

They can be engaged by establishing honesty and trust, said MacAllister in her interview. Governments simply need to know how much power they are willing to give to the community and in what ways do you want them to contribute. For example, in Australia and the United Kingdom, there have been instances where communities were involved in budget planning and introducing new regulations, she noted.

Once they participate, not only is the task at hand resolved but engagement also leads to more awareness and transparency of government services, MacAllister said. “Never underestimate your citizens, they are thoughtful, intelligent, public-minded people and they will often deliver surprising and terrific results if you just give them enough opportunity.” 

Here is an excerpt of some of the fine points she discussed in the interview:

With your experience working in the government sector, what would you say are the main challenges for the government in engaging communities?

I think there are two challenges. One arises from people being alienated, and I think people living in big cities, people become alienated, not just from government, but from one another. And it’s very easy to imagine if you’re an individual living in a very large city that you’re voice doesn’t make a difference, can’t make a difference, because everyday you’re confronted with the fact that you’re just one small person in a very big crowd and I think that leads to a lack of a sense that anything you contribute will in any way matter. So I think one of the real challenges for governments is to overcome that…

The second thing that I think is a challenge is, and I think it is difficult and these two things interrelate, are the challenges that face cities and urban planners have become terribly complex. We’re talking about very big systems, multiple systems interacting in complex ways and in very long time scales and so governments need to be able to respond to the fact that their communities will need time and assistance to get the information they need to participate properly in decision-making.

What are three key areas to look out for when involving communities in formulating public policy?

… This is something I really feel passionate about, is that you shouldn’t underestimate your community. So we’re really seeing some interesting examples emerge globally where communities are given much more responsibility. We’re moving beyond simply informing them and asking them to simply make a contribution … When you give citizens a chance to get together and make concrete decisions about how a portion of the government budget will be spent, you see some really interesting results. Not only do you get greater legitimacy for the spend, but sometimes it prompts council governments to collaborate more effectively…

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